Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise corpse

George was due to return to the Galapagos next January, to be exhibited at the Charles Darwin Research Station where he had lived since being discovered

Tim Walker
Wednesday 24 September 2014 06:45

Live slow, die old and leave a controversial corpse. That could have been a suitable motto for Lonesome George, the celebrated, centenarian giant tortoise who died in the Galapagos Islands in June 2012. Now, a row has broken out between the Islands and the Ecuadorian government in Quito over where George’s preserved body ought to be kept and displayed.

Thought to be the last living member of the Pinta Island subspecies of giant tortoise, in his twilight years George became a figurehead for conservation efforts on the Galapagos, the Ecuadorian-owned archipelago famous for its profusion of unique species. Earlier this year, George’s body was transported to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where it was treated by taxidermists and put on display.

George was due to return to the Galapagos in January 2015, to be exhibited at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, where he had lived since being discovered on nearby Pinta in 1971. Researchers had previously believed Pinta Island tortoises to be extinct, after the island’s vegetation – and their food source – was wiped out by non-indigenous feral goats.

However, officials from the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment have pooh-poohed the plan, saying George must instead be permanently displayed in the capital, Quito, where he will be seen by a greater number of visitors. This month, it was announced that a bronze replica would be sent to the Islands. Speaking to El Universo last weekend, Santa Cruz’s Mayor, Leopoldo Bucheli, called the decision “outrageous”, saying: “George is an icon and should return to Galapagos.”

The country’s Environment Minister, Lorena Tapia, said she agreed that it would be best if Lonesome George could return home, but added in a statement: “Preserving Lonesome George’s body requires special conditions, like moisture, temperature, physical space and security, in addition to the annual retouching made by the experts. At present, there is no site like this in the Galapagos.”

Named after George Gobel, a 1950s US television comedian, Lonesome George was approximately 100 years old when he died, which in fact made him relatively young for a giant tortoise. Although he died from natural causes related to old age, scientists had expected him to live for several more decades. The world’s oldest documented living reptile is a Seychelles giant tortoise named Jonathan who lives on St Helena and is thought to be 182 years old.

During his lifetime, scientists made numerous attempts to have George mate with females of similar subspecies and thus preserve his line, but while his companions laid several clutches of eggs, none ever hatched. Following his death, some of George’s cells were preserved in the hope of one day cloning him.

There had also reportedly been plans afoot to take George on a world tour, where he would have undergone photocalls with world leaders and promoted awareness of conservation endeavours in the Galapagos and beyond. Writing in The Guardian, Henry Nicholls, the author of the 2006 book Lonesome George, suggested the tour ought to be staged posthumously.

George, Nicholls wrote, “may not have been aware of his talents, but he was able to communicate the conservation message far more powerfully, with more dignity, than most humans. I think we have an ethical obligation to allow him to continue his work on as grand a scale as possible.”

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