Lonesome George, R.I.P.

“Whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.” Attributed to Seattle, chief of the Duwamish tribe.

In a world beset with intractable economic and political problems, why should the death of a tortoise matter? Because his death alerts us to our blindness to the natural world, and because he was known as the rarest creature on earth, the last of his subspecies, and we will never see his kind again.

Lonesome George, as this male tortoise was known, lived in the magical Galapagos Islands, where Charles Darwin got his idea on evolution. George lived about 100 years — not that much for a Galapagos tortoise — and died on June 24.

My wife Ara and I felt a kinship with George when we met him in 2009 at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands. He stretched out his long neck to look at us for some time, as if to greet us.

We couldn’t help but marvel at the life story of this final holdout. The Galapagos have many more unique creatures with enchanting names, such as the blue-footed booby, magnificent frigatebird and sally lightfoot crab. But it’s George’s relatives — the Galapagos giant tortoises — that dominate the scene. The shells of some subspecies resemble a saddle, galapago in Spanish. Hence Galapagos Islands.

These giant tortoises were studied by Darwin in 1835 in his voyage of the Beagle to these volcanic islands, located in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles west of the coast of Ecuador. He learned that the tortoises of each island had their own physical shapes and characters (Lonesome George was from Pinta Island). Confined to their own isolated realms, they had evolved to survive and propagate as their natural surroundings permitted. His observations on the tortoises and the Galapagos finches, among others, were the genesis of his theory of evolution by natural selection.

What does George’s demise tell about us? That we can be thoughtless and destructive. An estimated 250,000 giant tortoises once lived in the Galapagos. Then they were mercilessly hunted for their meat by the pirates and sailors. These slow-moving animals were gentle and trusting because of their isolation, so they were easy to catch on the land. “I frequently got on their backs,” Darwin wrote about his encounter with them.

They could live for a whole year without food or water and reached weights of up to 400 kilograms. All this made them ideal targets for exploitation, since they needed very little care to keep and to store on long voyages. The killing was followed by the destruction of island vegetation, the tortoises’ diet, by human habitation and the introduction of feral goats and pigs.

No wonder their numbers dwindled close to extinction in the 1970s. George’s kind was one of those to suffer the worst. In fact, his subspecies was thought to be extinct until a scientist, József Vágvölgyi, discovered him in 1971. With his death, five of the 15 subspecies of Galapagos turtles have vanished from the earth. Today, however, there is reason for optimism. Extensive conservation efforts have brought the population of Galapagos giant tortoises to 19,000.

We have a stake in the natural world, and we must not hurt it through impunity. “Remember,” the pioneering biologist Lynn Margulis said in a public lecture about 150 years after Chief Seattle issued his warning, “we are just one of the species here.”

Fazlur Rahman is an oncologist in San Angelo, Texas, and an amateur naturalist.

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