George may no longer be Lonesome

LONESOME George, the famous Galapagos tortoise, is described in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s rarest living creature.

The last member of his race, he seemed condemned to a solitary life, but now there’s a glimmer of hope that he won’t be lonesome for ever. A female with whom he consorted has laid five eggs, and, at long last, he looks like becoming a daddy. This is a mixed marriage. George’s partner is not one of his own persuasion; she belongs to another tribe.

The Galapagos archipelago, 1,000km west of Ecuador, in the Pacific Ocean, is one of the most isolated places on Earth. There are 14 large islands, and countless smaller ones, in an area of sea about half the size of Ireland.

They were uninhabited in 1535, when the Bishop of Panama’s ship went off course and chanced upon them. In a document claiming them for the King of Spain, the bishop referred to the giant ‘galapagos’, or ‘saddle-backs’, he saw there. They gave the islands their name.

These tortoises are the largest in the world; some weigh a quarter of a tonne. Unfortunately, the great, lumbering beasts were an ideal food for mariners on long voyages in the age of sail.

Tortoises can live for months without food or water, and can be stacked one on top of the other in a ship’s hold, providing fresh meat for sailors at sea. Darwin ate them during his five-week visit in 1836.

There were 14 kinds of tortoise on the Galapagos originally, all belonging to the same species, but sufficiently different from each other to be classed as distinct sub-species.

Whalers and sealers killed tens of thousands of them, rendering three of the races extinct.

The variety to which George belongs lived on Pinta, an isolated island to the north of the archipelago. Goats, introduced to Pinta, destroyed the island’s vegetation. In the 1960s, the tortoises were in terminal decline and George was the only one found during a search in 1972. He was taken into captivity at the Charles Darwin Research Centre on Santa Cruz Island.

American TV comedian, George Gobel, was the original ‘Lonesome George’, and one of three B52 bombers that flew non-stop around the world in 1957 also bore the name.

I visited the Galapagos in September, 2001, and dropped in on George. A mystique surrounds the saintly figure; meeting him is like having an audience with Nelson Mandela or the Pope. Visitors are not allowed get too close to him.

The search for a female of the Pinta race produced nothing, so George was offered potential mistresses from a population with characteristics similar to his own.

He shares a pen with two females from Wolf Island.

The temptresses have been around him for decades, but George showed no romantic interest until recently. Let’s not be too critical; things move slowly in the tortoise world. A distant relative from the Seychelles died in Kolcata Zoo at the age of 255, but nobody knows how old George is. Estimates vary from 80 to 100 years. Although no chicken, he’s still in his sexual prime.

On July 21, 2008, George astounded everyone by mating with one of the females, but all of the 13 eggs produced turned out to be duds.

Three of the five laid this year appear to be fertile, but scientists won’t know for certain until the end of the 120-day incubation. If babies hatch, they will carry 50% Pinta and 50% Wolf genes. Biologists hope that through selective breeding from George’s descendants, they will be able to regenerate a race close to the original. They won’t have to depend entirely on George for the task. In 2007, a male on Isabella, the largest of the Galapagos islands, was shown to be of half-Pinta descent.

The goats have been exterminated on Pinta, courtesy of sharpshooters from the Ecuadorian army, and the vegetation is recovering. If individuals can be bred which are close to the original population genetically, an ideal habitat awaits them on the island of George’s ancestors.

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