Portal, Arizona (PRWEB) June 29, 2012
Naturalist Journeys joins the world in honoring the passing of a conservation icon, Lonesome George, the tortoise celebrity of Galapagos. Groups from the Arizona-based natural history travel company have been visiting George for nearly twenty years. “Seeing George was pivotal,” says Peg Abbott, owner of the company and veteran host of Galapagos cruises. “He inspired ongoing conversations about the challenges and pitfalls of saving endangered species. Seeing the last remaining individual of a species, particularly in the Galapagos where nature is so vibrant, was moving every time.” Abbott describes that groups over the years would joke about George’s lack of interest in females after years in isolation, but find sobering the reality that his subspecies’ existence rested on his failed sexuality.
Thousands of tourists viewed Lonesome George every year. If he had a Facebook timeline, several parts of his story would stand out. Called the rarest animal on earth, at one time the government of Ecuador offered a $10,000 reward for anyone finding a genetic match. In previous centuries, sailors and pirates captured tortoises, carrying them alive – sometimes for years – Flipped up on their backs with bound limbs, to supply fresh meat as they traveled. It was hoped that somewhere, in a port near or far away from the Galapagos Islands, there might have been a suitable female tortoise offloaded from one of those boats. Sadly, the money went unclaimed despite years of searching.
In 1992, with tourism on the rise, George was moved to a new pen along the public route through the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS), and his new lodgings came with company – two females. Acknowledging that no survivors of his kind remained, a mating with closely-related individuals seemed the only possible choice. Naturalist Journeys clients watched for several years as this attempt at captive breeding failed due to George’s lack of interest, and then cheered when in the year fifteen, he got inspired. One year, participants met a young Swiss graduate student assigned by the CDRS to help George find that interest in females, or to get familiar enough with him to collect semen – the only way his subspecies could survive. Through tourism, members of the group got caught up with his ongoing story; several joined CDRS or the Galapagos Conservancy. Clients kept in touch, and cheered when Lonesome George finally mated with a female, and then sighed with sadness when the eggs proved to be infertile – twice.
In 2008, National Geographic issued an article entitled, “Extinct Tortoise Could Be Reconstructed.” On tours, Naturalist Journeys clients learned that new techniques were making it possible to test some of the tortoises that did not seem to match their specific island prototype, and scientists were finding some of the lost genes. Remote Wolf Volcano to the north, the last island ahead of setting sail for the open sea, showed promise for such finds. Scientists decoding the genomes of the various subspecies of Giant Tortoises (once 15, now 10, and all but four very rare) thought they might be able to devise a breeding program, using molecular markers, to bring diluted genes from individuals of these mixed subspecies to a more pure form.
Giant Tortoises (Galapagos in Spanish) gave the fabled islands their name. Lonesome George acquired his from the popular 1950’s comedian television star, George Gobel, who inspired laughter in his role as a beleaguered, misunderstood husband. It is estimated that George Gobel’s namesake lived for over 100 years, forty of them at CDRS.
Space is still available on the Naturalist Journeys' January 18-28, 2013 voyage to the turquoise-rimmed, World Heritage islands of the Galapagos. There, for the first time, Lonesome George’s story will be told in the past tense. Abbott is counting on positive news from a scheduled 2012 meeting of experts, held to work out a plan for breeding, repatriating, and managing tortoises over the next ten years to offset his loss. In this way, the island’s most famous mascot and his legacy will live on. Full details of the voyage can be found on the Naturalist Journeys website.