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Featured Creature: Lonesome George

Chief Fan and Reporter: Gavin Pitts

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Alias: The most beloved pop-culture reptile since Godzilla

With the demise in 2005 of Pope John Paul II, the title of the world’s most stubborn old man has passed to an individual whom can be found most days in his enclosure at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz in the Galapagos Islands, contentedly munching on a juicy frond of cactus. No, Charlton Heston hasn’t finally let go of his last few marbles, it’s Lonesome George, a loveable old reptile who has come to personify (well, tortoisify, I suppose) the struggle for endangered species.

Famed for its huge, gentle and vegetarian Giant Tortoises, the Galapagos Island Chain, before being declared a world heritage site, was regularly plundered of the huge reptiles by hungry, unscrupulous sailors and their introduced vandal lackeys cats, rats and (especially) goats. These feral interlopers ran riot on the islands, sending several species of Giant Tortoise unique to the individual islands to extinction. Such was the case with the Pinta Island Giant Tortoise, Geochelone nigra abingdonii, which was declared extinct in the late 1960’s.

Then, in 1971, a team of scientists trying to rid the various Galapagos Islands of their feral goats visited Pinta – and came across one solitary Pinta Tortoise. Repeated surveys of the island failed to find any other living animals, and so the Tortoise was moved to a new, comfy home at the CDRS on Santa Cruz. Lonesome George, the last surviving Pinta Island Giant Tortoise in existence, is now the sprightly young age of eighty (Galapagos Tortoises live for about 200 years), but when he finally dies, that will be it for his species. Much like Hugh Heffner (only scalier), eighty should be prime reproductive age for Giant Tortoises. Unfortunately Lonesome George’s prospects at producing fruit from his unique loins seem dim – no other Pinta Tortoises have been found since, and efforts to mate him with the closest genetic match to Pinta – the relatively common Isabella Island Giant Tortoise – have so far been met with curmudgeonly refusal to get it up on George’s part. Scientists speculate that because he’s the last of his kind, he didn’t have any other Cassanovas-in-the-half-shell to teach him the ropes of tortoise nookie; others have speculated that George doesn’t munch on that side of the cactus patch, if you get my meaning…

Cloning, in-vitro fertilization and scouring zoo populations for overlooked Pinta specimens are all on the agenda in the fight to stop the Pinta Tortoise bloodline from ending with Lonesome George. In the meantime, as the flagship animal of the conservation movement, George is leading a cushy life on Santa Cruz with his every need and whim met, a bevy of comely young tortoise wenches thrown at him every breeding season and an entire armada of herpetologists ready to leap into his enclosure and give him mouth to mouth if he so much as hiccups.

Long may he reign!

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