Lonesome George

Coming down in the elevator this morning a friendly fellow-rider, a Chinese man, tells me he works in the hotel laundry. He looks quizzically at my luggage. I tell him we are going to the Galapagos Islands. He smiles broadly, says in fluent Spanish that it is a paradise.

After an hour and a half flight we arrive in paradise at 10:45am. This morning our goal is the Charles Darwin Research Center. The role of the station vis a vis turtles is to hatch eggs from the several islands in the Galapagos, protect them so that they can mature and, at the age of 5 years, return them to their native island where they live out the rest of their lives in peace. At that age they have no natural predators.

As we walk from one walled terrarium to the next, the ages of the turtles increase, culminating in a group whose members hatched 120 years ago. Most of the turtles are nameless. That makes sense. They aren’t pets; they are wards.

Only two tortoises have names. Diego was a gift from the San Diego Zoo. Before he came, there were no species like him left in the islands. Now there are 2000.

Lonesome George
Lonesome George (Solitario Jorge in Spanish), a Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni) is a tortoise of a different color. Unlike Diego, Lonesome George has been unable to mate. He is 90 years old. What makes him special is that he is the absolute last of his kind, perhaps the rarest creature on the face of the earth.

When George goes, his line goes with him unless, that is, the Center can get him to mate. So far their efforts have come a cropper. Attempts to tempt him with genetically similar females have failed. Once he was found on top of one, only he was fast asleep. Cloning is a possibility, but that will have to wait until the technology solves the problem of inheriting the age of the donor. Dolly, the sheep, may have been born at the age of 6. George’s clone could be born a centenarian.

George, a saddleback tortoise, looks just like that, a four-legged saddle. Tortoises are ugly creatures. Their front and hind legs bulge from under their carapaces like fat pontoons. They have slits for eyes, tiny pig snouts for noses, long arching necks and flattened snake-like heads. They look as if a committee put them together. Their one saving grace, to my eyes, is their slowness. When they move, which isn’t often, they do so with a controlled slowness that would be the envy of any dancer. The head will shift as if it were gliding through a sea of molasses and then come to rest on the ground, lowering centimeter by centimeter, in the slowest of gestures. The effort, slow as it is, seems too much for them. They enter a state of suspended animation where they remain until they have recovered enough to move another half inch.

I am wrong about one saving grace. There is a second. Sea turtles are like ugly ducklings. Watching them on land is one thing. But put them into water and they make Cirque du Soleil look like amateurs. Their gracefulness is transforming. How can such cumbersome creatures do that?

There is something romantic about Lonesome George, him being the last of his kind, the we-broke-the-mold tortoise, and all that. But I don’t think that is the reason for George’s appeal. We identify with Lonesome George because we are just like him. We are all sui generis, the last of our kind.