Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon

Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon

by Henry Nicholls



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Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon by Henry Nicholls

Lonesome George, the sole survivor of a giant tortoise species, has come to embody the challenges of conservation today. His story captures the mystery, complexity, and fragility of the world's most biodiverse spot—the Galapagos Islands—via sexual dysfunction, Charles Darwin, kidnapping, cloning, DNA fingerprinting and ecotourism. In the end, George's lonesome story echos the experiences and discoveries of conservationalists worldwide.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781403945761
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Publication date: 04/04/2006
Series: MacSci Series
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.35(w) x 8.08(h) x 0.99(d)

About the Author

HENRY NICHOLLSwas the editorfor The Encyclopedia of Life Sciences, Biomednet, and Endeavour. Hewrites for such publications as Nature and Science.

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Lonesome George

The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon

By Henry Nicholls


Copyright © 2006 Henry Nicholls
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-55225-8



On 1 December 1971, American snail biologist Joseph Vagvolgyi and his wife Maria were on Pinta when they came face to face with a giant tortoise. 'The tortoise was walking slowly when we first encountered him, but withdrew into his shell with a loud hiss as we moved closer to take his picture', Vagvolgyi recalled. 'He soon relaxed, and resumed his walk.' Vagvolgyi took a photograph and returned to the undergrowth and his search for snails. Neither he nor his wife realized the immense significance of their encounter.

To most other visitors, the sight of a tortoise on Pinta would have been incredible. As far as everyone knew (except, it seems, the Vagvolgyis), there were no tortoises left on the island. Two centuries of exploitation at the hands of buccaneers and whalers had taken their toll; the last tortoise seen on Pinta was collected by scientists in 1906.

In March 1972, Joseph and Maria hosted dinner in the small free-standing cottage they rented in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. Maria was in the tiny dining room, barely big enough for a table and four chairs, when the doorbell chimed. Joseph ushered in Peter Pritchard, his wife Sibille and their baby son.

Pritchard is a world authority on sea turtles. He grew up in Belfast but has lived in Florida since 1965 where he founded the Chelonian Research Institute. Shortly after the birth of his first son in February 1972, Pritchard's young family flew to the Galápagos from Florida to catch the end of the sea turtle nesting season. Soon after their arrival they received the invitation to dine with the Vagvolgyis.

As often happens when scientists get together in the Galápagos, the conversation turned to giant tortoises. Pritchard found himself telling a captive audience about the two main types in the archipelago: the domed variety and those with shells shaped like saddles. Sibille had heard it all before. Still, she enjoyed seeing her husband in his element. With her son asleep in the bedroom next door, she was relaxed and happy.

When Pritchard described the Pinta tortoise as a saddleback, Vagvolgyi piped up: 'The tortoise we saw on Pinta did not have a particularly saddlebacked shell.' Pritchard was stunned. 'I practically lost my teeth', is how he remembers it.

Peter Pritchard has been passionate about turtles and tortoises for as long as he can remember: 'I was a pretty weird kid. I tended to be attracted to things that no one else was interested in.' His parents fuelled his obsession. They gave him the Handbook of Turtles by Archie Carr, who later guided Pritchard through a doctorate at the University of Florida. For his 16th birthday, he got a copy of The Gigantic Land-Tortoises (Living and Extinct) in the Collection of the British Museum, written in 1877 by the museum's curator of reptiles Albert Günther. This 98-page monograph is full of wonderful engravings. One of these – 'a peculiar beast whose shell looked more like a wrinkled, leathery mantle than a true carapace, and whose long, stout neck, raised straight up, carried a tiny head with expressionless eyes' – made a particularly strong impression on the youthful reptile geek. 'I resolved', he wrote in Natural History Magazine in 1977, 'that someday I would lead an expedition to try and find survivors of this prehistoric-looking creature.'

So here was Pritchard, sitting at a cramped dinner table on an unseasonably cool Galápagos night with a snail fancier who claimed to have seen his reptilian Moby Dick. Unable to contain his excitement, Pritchard bombarded his poor host with questions. When had he seen this tortoise? 1st December. Where was it? On a southerly slope of the volcano. At what kind of altitude? Around 200 m. What size? Not so big. What was it doing? Walking. Had he taken any photos? Yes. How many? One. From what angle? Side on. Could he mail a copy of the photo once it was developed? Yes.

It was a boyhood dream come true. That night, Pritchard didn't sleep. How fantastic it would be, he thought, to track down Vagvolgyi's tortoise.

* * *

There are some cracking tales of the rediscovery of supposedly extinct creatures. The woolly flying squirrel – the world's largest – was known only from a few skins collected in late 19thcentury Pakistan and from a photograph snapped in 1924 of a British colonel leading one by a rope. For most of the 20th century, naturalists assumed that this bizarre mammal was no more. Then in the summer of 1994, the squirrel was rediscovered in the Northern Areas region in Pakistan by Peter Zahler, an American zoologist working for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

All the valleys that Zahler combed and all the traps he set had drawn a blank, when two men dropped into his camp and offered to supply a living squirrel in exchange for around $40. Holding out little hope, Zahler agreed and handed over a big cloth bag. Within a couple of hours, the men were back with something of about the right size wriggling in the bag. 'It's a woolly flying squirrel', announced Zahler with surprising sangfroid as the animal dropped into a waiting cage. The creature's droppings are reputed to have aphrodisiac properties and the hired hunters were in the business of collecting them. Zahler now has circumstantial evidence of probably a few thousand woolly flying squirrels living near Pakistan's borders with Afghanistan and China.

Another wonderful rediscovery is that of the rice rat of the Galápagos island of Santiago. Until 1997, the rodent was known only from specimens collected in 1906 by the scientists of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. When they eventually got round to studying these in 1932, it looked like they'd found a new species, Nesoryzomys swarthi. Unfortunately, by then the presence of non-native black rats on Santiago and the complete absence of any further sightings of the rice rat led most to assume it had gone extinct. A skull turned up in 1965 but extensive field surveys from the 1970s onwards drew a complete blank.

Then in 1997, Robert Dowler, a mammal biologist at Angelo State University in Texas, landed on the north shore of Santiago with his graduate students Darin Carroll and Cody Edwards. They planned to set out early next morning for the highest point on the island, where they thought they stood the best chance of finding rice rats. Setting up camp near the shore, Dowler suggested they put out a few traps just to see what was there.

The next morning the trio was astonished to find 25 Santiago rice rats in the traps. Without a permit to take a sample specimen, they had to let them go. Excited, they hiked up into the highlands, where they managed to make radio contact with officials of the Galápagos National Park Service (GNPS) back in Puerto Ayora who agreed they could collect up to five specimens if they could find any more. Trapping in the highlands yielded nothing. On their return to the shore, they set the traps again. The next morning there were 49 rice rats. Dowler set loose 44 and carried off five for further study.

* * *

Back in late 1971, when Vagvolgyi clocked the tortoise on Pinta, German-born conservationist Peter Kramer had just begun his stint as the director of the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS). News of the tortoise sighting came as a shock. Kramer had spent three weeks on Pinta studying finches nearly nine years earlier, in March 1963. 'I remember seeing bleached bones of tortoises but nothing alive', he says. 'I was absolutely convinced that it had gone.'

In 1968, the Ecuadorian government created the nucleus of a park service under the control of the Ministry of Agriculture's Forestry Service. At first, the fledgling GNPS shared offices with the research station in Puerto Ayora. This established an alliance that continues today, with scientists and park wardens working closely to protect the unique archipelago. So in 1971 Kramer and his CDRS scientists got together with their GNPS colleagues to discuss what, if anything, should be done about Vagvolgyi's tortoise. They decided that an impending hunting trip to Pinta to cull the thousands of introduced goats destroying the island's plants offered the perfect opportunity to locate the mysterious reptile.

Around the time the Pritchards dined with the Vagvolgyis – early March 1972 – a boat bound for Pinta left the dock of the CDRS and motored out into the bay. Aboard were eleven park wardens and a young zoologist called Manuel Cruz. Cruz was in his last year of studies at the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Guayaquil on mainland Ecuador. He was tasked with finding out what plants the goats were eating by opening up their stomachs to extract half-digested vegetation.

The goat hunters broke their 200-km, two-day voyage to Pinta on Santiago and reached their final destination the following evening. Their boat motored off to return in due course, leaving them on the island. They set up a camp at its southernmost tip. Teenage warden Francisco Castañeda was assigned to help Cruz. Each day, they set off together, armed with a knife, plant press, scales, altimeter, a few plant books and rifles to pick off goats and work out their feeding preferences.

On 20 March, Cruz and Castañeda were skirting the western slopes of the volcano, when they caught sight of something about 60 m ahead. 'We both thought it was a goat and taking aim with our rifles we walked closer until we saw that it was actually a tortoise!' Cruz later wrote in the islands' scientific journal Noticias de Galápagos.

The tortoise was surrounded by rocks and feeding from a tree. Cruz handed a camera to Castañeda and clambered over a few boulders to be photographed beside the tortoise. Castañeda then stayed with the animal, while Cruz ran back to the camp with news of their discovery. He took off his shirt and left it hanging like a flag from the tree to help him retrace his steps.

Back at camp, nobody believed the youngster. The absence of Castañeda, however, suggested that something was up. So one warden, Camilo Calapucha, agreed to follow Cruz up the volcano to check out his story. When Cruz caught sight of his shirt in the tree, he raced on ahead. Castañeda, sitting on a large chunk of lava, looked up. To Calapucha's surprise, there was the tortoise, exactly as Cruz had described it.

Calapucha raced back to camp to get help. He returned with all the wardens he could find, some machetes, rope and another camera. One warden, Oswaldo Chapi, took some photos while the others cut down branches from which to sling the tortoise. 'The swinging of the tortoise made it very difficult for us to walk over the lava', Cruz recalled. On two occasions, a branch snapped under its weight. 'It was a horrible trip!'

By the time they made it back to camp, it was the afternoon. The tortoise caused a real stir. It was big and seemed to be in fine condition. Once righted, unleashed from its shackles and set down on the ground, it began to march away from its captors. To prevent its escape, the wardens looped a rope around one of its rear feet and tethered it to a massive cactus.

* * *

Meanwhile, out at sea, another boat was on its way to Pinta, chartered by Cruz's supervisor Danish botanist Ole Hamann. He had several people in tow, including his wife Michelle, a German iguana specialist Dagmar Werner, a graduate student and a couple of assistants. Also on board were Peter and Sibille Pritchard and their baby son.

Pritchard had got wind of Hamann's expedition and eagerly arranged to share the charter. Nobody had ever studied sea turtles on Pinta and this was a perfect opportunity to survey its beaches for signs of nesting. At least that was his official line. Secretly, Pritchard wanted to be a part of the tortoise adventure and even hoped to be the one to find Vagvolgyi's beast. 'I was much more excited about the possibility of seeing a tortoise on Pinta than a sea turtle', he admits.

The ship's radio started up. A warden on Pinta was contacting the approaching vessel. Pritchard looked on as Hamann took the receiver and began to speak in fluent Spanish. Something was up. At the end of a lengthy and animated conversation, Hamann turned to Pritchard. 'They have found a tortoise, a large male', he beamed.

For an instant, Pritchard was overcome by disappointment. Someone had beaten him to the discovery. This feeling soon faded. Vagvolgyi said he'd seen a smallish tortoise on Pinta. So the large male that the wardens had just found was clearly a different tortoise, he reasoned. Vagvolgyi's beast was still out there to be discovered. What's more, it's smaller size meant that it might be a female. 'There was still hope that a potential breeding pair existed', he later wrote.

The last few hours of the voyage seemed to take forever. By late afternoon, Pinta came into view. As they drew closer, they could make out the camp on the beach. Pritchard scoured the scene through binoculars for signs of the tortoise.

He jumped out onto the lone sandy beach of Pinta's black lava shoreline and raced to see the find. 'It lacked the antediluvian look of Günther's old engravings', he remembers. 'But when the animal raised its head three feet in the air, I recognized the primeval stare of the British Museum specimens.' Sure enough, it was a big tortoise and a male.

Hamann and Pritchard carried it out into the open to take photographs in a more natural setting. The tortoise didn't warm to this impromptu shoot and stomped for cover. That evening Calapucha cooked up a fine meal of spit-roasted goat. Sitting out together in the open air, the new arrivals tucked in, musing over the tortoise tied up a stone's throw from the camp.

The following morning, the goat work being finished, the park wardens struck their tents and began to load equipment onto Hamann's boat. One of the last things to be carried from the island was the giant tortoise. The wardens untied the rope around his leg, turned him upside down and carried him across the beach to a dinghy bobbing in the shallows. Cruz sat with the reptile as he was rowed out to the waiting vessel. Hamann and Pritchard stood in silence on the beach, looking on as the tortoise left Pinta and moved slowly out to sea.

Back at the CDRS, he was unloaded and carried inland. A routine once-over returned a clean bill of health. Next a thorough inspection and wash prevented the inadvertent introduction of seeds or parasites from Pinta that might be trapped in a fold of flesh. For example, tortoises carry ticks. Just as tortoises on one island are treated as distinct from tortoises on another island, so too are their ticks.

It was down to CDRS director Peter Kramer to decide where to put this welcome guest. The Charles Darwin Foundation, which oversees the research station, had come into being in 1959 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; its tortoise-rearing facilities were still fairly limited. The early years were spent collecting basic data to establish some conservation priorities. Surveys throughout the archipelago revealed that only three tortoise populations could be left to their own devices. The others needed help.

Initially, the research station focused on collecting eggs from Pinzón, where black rats had taken over and were eating baby tortoises. The researchers hatched these eggs, reared the Pinzón babies in captivity and returned them to the wild when old enough to survive the ratty onslaught.

Then during the 1960s, the CDRS took in a handful of individuals from Española. Small enclosures built from blocks of lava prevented these tortoises from escaping and kept them apart. In January 1970, the San Diego Zoological Society funded a new building at the research station. Here tourists could get a close-up glimpse of baby tortoises being reared at the CDRS.

Kramer decided the Pinta tortoise needed to be kept separate from other tortoises at the research station. He gave the honoured arrival free run of a large enclosure down by the sea.

* * *

Back on Pinta, just a few days after the tortoise left for Santa Cruz, Peter Pritchard stood on the highest point of the island, his young son in a hip-sling, and stared out to sea. His assistant gazed down the volcano's bright green slopes. Sea turtles were now playing second fiddle to giant tortoises.


Excerpted from Lonesome George by Henry Nicholls. Copyright © 2006 Henry Nicholls. Excerpted by permission of Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of figuresviii
Prologue: A conservation iconxv
2Lonesome George's girlfriend17
3The origin of a species33
4Random drift51
5Man trap72
6Lock up your tortoise91
7The mysteries of Pinta110
8The diaspora130
9Wild at heart145
10Faking organisms160
11Clones and chimeras173
Epilogue: What now?189
Notes and sources193
Bibliography and further reading206
Figure acknowledgements224

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Like the best human-focused biographers, Nicholls uses his unusual subject as a springboard into more universal territory. He aptly portrays Lonesome George as a sort of reptilian Forrest Gump, an unwitting bystander continually thrust to the forefront as society's defining crises play themselves out around him."—Wired "This marvellous look at the conservation of nature, as embodied in one enormous reptile, is highly recommended."—Nancy Bent, Booklist "Is he gay, impotent or just bored? Read this fascinating book for the full story. It skilfully blends historical derring-do with cutting-edge conservation biology."—NewScientist"Told with real affection and humour...a fitting tribute to one of the voiceless victims of human progress."—Guardian  "A warmly enjoyable book...a pleasure to read."—www.popularscience.co.uk "Nicholls' lively tale takes the reader on a journey through the Galapagos - and how much there is to lose."—BBC Focus Magazine "This is a wonderful tale of an almost mythical beast. Rich in historical detail George's story is one of pathos, despair and hope with some quirky reproductive biology thrown in for good measure. Nicholls has done us all a service, reminding us of the fragility of life in general and of one very special chelonian in particular." — Tim Birkhead, author of Promiscuity and The Red Canary

 "Not simply the story of a tortoise but the tale of that icon of evolution, the Galápagos archipelago, and of the heroics and (sometimes) seeming futility of the conservation movement. The science is compelling, the tone is light - highly recommended."—Olivia Judson, Seed Magazine

 "It is a cracking tale - and crackingly well told. It is also salutary. Giant tortoises are indeed extraordinary - but not as strange as human beings."—Colin Tudge, author of The Secret Life of Trees

"If Darwin were alive today he would be fascinated by Henry Nicholls' splendid account of this solitary survivor from Pinta Island. A must for anyone who cares about extinction or has a soft spot for the remarkable history of a very singular animal."—Janet Browne, author of Charles Darwin: A Biography “The literary device of placing a reptilian icon at the centre of a dynamic play about science, conservation and our attitudes to nature results in a highly readable book that has much to say about the ways we flounder around in our attempts to protect things that seem important to us.” —Nature

“Lonesome George will do for the cause of science and preservation in the Galápagos what Jonathan Weiner's The Beak of the Finch did a decade before—entertain, enlighten and encourage us all to do our part to preserve not just these islands, but Earth itself.” —Michael Shermer, author of In Darwin's Shadow, in THES “Nicholls is a brilliant storyteller and narrative stylist in the finest tradition—an emotional but fact-filled call for action.” —The Skeptic “Conciencious, comprehensive and balanced. Everyone with an interest in conservation should read this account and consider its implications.” —Trends in Evolution and Ecology  “Well written and fascinating—Nicholls’ passion for his subject and sense of humour are always evident.” —Times Literary Supplement  "Manages to package human drama, reproductive biology and a conservation message with humour and exemplary clarity." —Folha de S.Paulo “Highly readable. I encourage you to read this succinct book and pass it on to your colleagues, even children.” —EMBO Reports, Professor Jeffrey Powell, Yale  "In terms that are at once accessible and breezy, he makes an unequivovcal case for the sole known remaining individual of the Galapagos giant tortoise subspecies, Geochelone nigra abingdoni...Nicholls is a master reconteur...the chapters themselves are marvels of elucidation...Nicholls' effort is both timely and redoubtable, and demands critical attnetion now." —John Matthew, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences  


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