Ten years after his death, Lonesome George continues to attract visitors to the Galapagos Islands
In 1971, while poking around the Galapagos island of Pinta in search of mollusks, Hungarian zoologist József Vágvölgyi instead discovered a 60-year-old tortoise — the only one remaining, with his food supply having been devastated by ravaging feral goats introduced a century earlier. Singular not only on Pinta but the planet, this last of the Chelonoidis niger abingdonii was dubbed “Lonesome George” and transported to the Charles Darwin Research Station on the nearby island of Santa Cruz, for the safety of the individual and with the aspiration to preserve the subspecies.
Over decades, George was monitored by multiple teams of scientists and tended by park ranger Fausto Llerana; in 1983 Llerana, who had developed a passion for tortoises as an adolescent, became the tortoise’s primary caregiver. George cohabitated with two genetically similar females with whom he was encouraged to mate. This was largely unsuccessful, save for a couple of breedings generating eggs that were not fertile. One hopes that he at least enjoyed their company.
At one point, researchers offered a $10,000 finders fee in exchange for a suitable partner. Sadly this matchmaking attempt did not produce the desired results. George did, however, find a constant companion in Llerana, who came to work even on his days off to spend time with him, and grew to consider George his best friend.
In June of 2012, George failed to greet Llerena, as was his custom, upon arrival. Llerena found him dead, having passed away of natural causes. His body was sent to the American Museum of Natural History where it was taxidermied and displayed, then returned to Santa Cruz. Lonesome George now can be viewed in the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center, an installation at the Darwin Station devoted to the beast and named for his keeper.
While George was thought to be an endling for the duration of his captivity, in 2020 researchers on an expedition to Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island came across a female tortoise determined to be a direct descendent of George’s subspecies.
Llerena retired shortly after George’s passing. He now focuses on carving wood sculptures of local wildlife. Lonesome George is a favorite subject.
Credit: Atlas Obscura