Galapagos, the remote islands in the Pacific that inspired Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution with their wonderland of different species, is famed for its tortoises. Lonesome George remains the most legendary of them all.
For centuries, Galapagos was a sort of giant supermarket for any passing ship in need of food and water. The island’s giant tortoises, who could live for a year onboard ship without food and drink – and tasted delicious – were reduced from a population of more than 250,000 to around 3,000.
The most famous of those tortoises was “Lonesome George”, who was photographed by countless visitors – myself included – to the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) on Santa Cruz, the second largest Galapagos island. He lived there for almost 40 years after being relocated from Pinta Island in 1972, the last of his subspecies, but died in 2012, at the age of 100. That is relatively young for an animal that can live to 200 years old.
“It is amazing to think that there may be tortoises still living who were here when Charles Darwin visited,” says David Horwell, an expert on Galapagos wildlife whose Select Latin America company takes visitors there several times a year. “It was the differences he saw between the distinct species of birds, lizards and tortoises on each island that led directly to his Theory of Natural Selection. Lonesome George was the last Pinta Tortoise that we know of and his death is a lost battle in the long war to save the Galapagos as one of the world’s greatest wonders.”
George’s replacement in the affections of tours to the CDRS includes “Super Diego”, who came from San Diego Zoo in 1977 and now has some 1,700 children. He has singlehandedly brought the Española tortoise back from the brink, after it was down to two males and 12 females in the 1960s. They were relocated to the research station to ensure their survival but Super Diego’s offspring have now been released back onto Española Island and are repopulating it.
Their return was made possible by the removal of the last goat in 1978, one of the great success stories of Galapagos. Efforts on Española are now directed to preserving the world’s only breeding site for the waved albatross, as well as restoring the cactus forests that existed before the goats were landed by sailors wanting to create a larder for return visits.