The tragically early death of Lonesome George (1912-2012)

The giant tortoise's demise means his kind are extinct. Michael McCarthy pays tribute and asks which species is next


It may be a curlew or a kakapo. It may be the baiji, or a bat. But no one knows for sure now, what is the rarest creature on the planet.

The title is going begging this week after the death of Lonesome George, a giant tortoise from the Galapagos Islands who was the last remaining member of his sub-species.

George was thought to be about 100 years old, which makes his death tragically premature as giant tortoises are thought to live to about 200.

There are other species hovering around the top of the endangered species list. But none has quite George's distinctive and unchallengeable claim to uniqueness, as the sole remaining member of his type on the planet.

George was from Pinta Island in the Galapagos, and there were no more members of the Pinta sub-species of the giant tortoise to be found anywhere.

Indeed, scientists believed that Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni had become extinct until George was discovered on Pinta in 1972. Subsequently, he became part of the Galapagos National Park tortoise breeding programme and was encouraged to mate with females of a closely related sub-species but never succeeded in reproducing.

However, he did become a tourist symbol of the Galapagos, famed as the Pacific archipelago visited by the young Charles Darwin in 1835 and now receiving 180,000 visitors a year. (Darwin's observations of how similar species differed slightly from island to island – including the tortoises – started his thinking on the origin of species and evolution.)

A dozen giant tortoise sub-species remain on the islands, with about 20,000 animals in total. When Darwin visited, they were plentiful but later in the 19th century, they were hunted for their meat by fishermen and sailors until their population dropped alarmingly. Their population has now recovered – except, of course, for the Pinta sub-species.

National Park officials said George was found dead in his corral by his keeper Fausto Llerena, who had looked after him for 40 years.

So who is to replace him at the pinnacle of the endangered species list? The best candidates are those creatures which may actually have gone extinct, but might be surviving in tiny numbers. In mammal terms that means the baiji – or Yangtze river dolphin of China – which has been driven to the brink, or possibly over it, by the pollution the Yangtse has had to accommodate during China's industrialisation.

In 2006, an expedition failed to find any of the animals, and it was declared extinct, but the following year a baiji-like creature was filmed in the river – so perhaps a tiny number remain.

A similar situation concerns what may be the world's rarest bird, which is probably one of two curlew species – either the eskimo curlew of North and South America, or the slender-billed curlew of Europe, Asia and North Africa.

The eskimo curlew has not been recorded with certainty since 1963 although there have been possible sightings as late as 2006 in Nova Scotia; and while a slender-billed curlew was seen in Northumberland in 1998, there have been no sightings since which have been documented with photographs.

There are many other birds that are down to small numbers, such as the kakapo, the flightless nocturnal parrot of New Zealand, or perhaps the rarest duck, the Madagascar pochard, of which only 60 individuals remain.

The rarest mammals that are definitely still with us include the northern hairy-nosed wombat of Australia (just over 100 remain), the Seychelles sheath-tailed bat (fewer than 100), and the Javan rhinoceros (fewer than 60).

But none exists in such definite and splendid isolation as Lonesome George did, in his solitary Galapagos splendour.

Catch them while you can: dying species

The baiji or Yangtze river dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer), is one of five species of river dolphin – smallish marine mammals that have adapted to living in fresh water. The others are the La Plata river dolphin of southern South America, the Ganges and Indus river dolphins in India and Pakistan, and the pink Amazon river dolphin, or boto, in Brazil.

The eskimo curlew (Numenius borealis) is among eight curlew species in the world. It was – or is – a bird which bred on the Arctic tundra of western Canada and Alaska and then migrated thousands of miles to spend the winter in South America. It was once one of the world's most numerous waders but was killed in huge numbers at the end of the 19th century.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English teachers required in Lowestoft

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified English tea...

Business Development Director - Interior Design

£80000 - £100000 per annum + competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment...

Sales Director, Media Sponsorship

£60000 - £65000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A globally successful media and ...

Head of Affiliate Sales for Emerging Markets

competitive + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Are you looking for your next role ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits