When I saw the news yesterday I was overcome with sadness and spent a great deal of time thinking about Lonesome George and all he had meant to both me personally and to the world of species conservation in general, says Anders G.J. Rhodin, M.D., Chairman Emeritus, IUCN Species Survival Commission's (SSC) Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group.
My first thought was that it was as if I had lost a personal friend or close and dear relative--someone who had become very special to me and about whom I thought often. I met him in 1982 when Peter Pritchard introduced me to him at the Charles Darwin Research Station. We had been allowed to enter the pen and I spent a long time in his company photographing and observing and examining him. Peter took our photograph together and I felt as if I had been looking into the eyes of a surviving relict of the age of dinosaurs. I hoped fervently that his race could somehow be saved from extinction.
That trip to the Galapagos and to see Lonesome George with Peter helped inspire me to become increasingly active in turtle and tortoise conservation, and I gradually increased my role in that world, culminating with Chairing the IUCN SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group and receiving the Sir Peter Scott Award for Conservation Merit from the IUCN SSC.
In some ways it was the inspiration of seeing Lonesome George that drove me to want to make a difference in the world of conservation. And now he's gone. Will his loss now inspire future leaders of conservation? I think back to how I felt long ago when I learned about the last Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) that went extinct, or the last Tasmanian Wolf (Thylacinus cynocephalus): my overwhelming sadness at the irrevocable loss of these magnificent species. And now the Pinta Island Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni) is also gone forever.
More than a just a symbol for the Galapagos, Lonesome George was a symbol of our global never-ending struggle to preserve the richness and diversity and beauty of the planet we inherited from our ancestors. This was now our legacy to continue to protect for our future and for our coming generations. And yet, somehow, we have let yet another magnificent species slip through our grasp into the dustbin of history, never to return. And this despite all of our global efforts at making a difference and to avoid any more extinctions. It fills me with sadness, especially knowing that there was still some slim hope out there for Lonesome George: the recent find of some hybrid tortoises on Volcan Wolf carrying 50% of George's genotype.
I hope that this loss will somehow catalyze our efforts to work even harder at securing a safe future for all the other turtle and tortoise species teetering on the edge of extinction. Of the 300+ species of turtles and tortoises in the world, approximately 50% are already threatened with extinction (more than most other large vertebrate groups), and our Top 25 most endangered turtles and tortoises of the world just became our Top 24--the most endangered one is now gone. Can we save the rest? Only by working hard and focusing our efforts will we succeed. But I believe in my heart that we can.
Since the time when Lonesome George was found in 1972, the global turtle and tortoise conservation community has made great strides in building an increasingly effective global network of like-minded organizations focused on saving these species. NGOs like Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society, Turtle Survival Alliance, Turtle Conservancy, and many others, are making major contributions towards saving turtle and tortoise species around the world. They all need our help, as do the turtles and tortoises themselves.
Let us make sure that Lonesome George becomes the very last turtle or tortoise species to die the lonesome death of final extinction.