The Plight of Lonesome George

The Naked Scientists spoke to Dr Henry Nicholls, science writer and author based in London
19 March 2006

Interview with 

Dr Henry Nicholls, science writer and author based in London


Chris - Tell us about the story of Lonesome George.

Henry - George was discovered in 1971 on a very remote island in the Galapagos. Charles Darwin passed through in 1835. This island was thought to have lost all its giant tortoises.

Chris - Where did they go?

Henry - During the 18th and 19th centuries, sailors and buccaneers came through and basically ate them.

Chris - Why were they particularly good as a food source for sailors?

Henry - It's really because they don't need food or water to stay alive. The sailors would collect these tortoises, take them on board, flip them upside down in the hold and they would live for as long as a year on board and survive. When they were killed a year later, the sailors could have fresh meat.

Chris - Do they taste good then?

Henry - Allegedly they do. I can't say I've tried or would try them. Darwin noted in his writing that the young ones in particular made excellent soup.

Chris - So how did Lonesome George end up being the last one?

Henry - This island he live don got particularly hard hit and the last ones were collected in 1906 and nobody saw any more until 1971 when they found this single male. He was taken into captivity on a different island and he's been there ever since.

Chris - What are the prospects for him?

Henry - They're bleak, frankly, as far as his reproduction is concerned. As far as his status as a conservation icon is concerned then they have never been better. George is really an awesome ambassador for the conservation cause in Galapagos and even beyond.

Chris - He's thought to be 60 to 100 years old isn't he?

Henry - We can say he's definitely 60, and tortoises might love as long as 200, although nobody really knows. They're thought to be the longest living animal on the planet.

Chris - In terms of rescuing him, genetically speaking, is it possible to cross mate him with another related tortoise so you might be able to rescue some of his genes?

Henry - There were originally thought to be about 15 different types of tortoise of the different islands, which they call subspecies. That indicates that they're not entirely different species and are sufficiently closely related that they can breed with each other. Two females from a different island have been in George's enclosure with him since 1992, but he's shown absolutely no interest in them. He's quite adamant that he's not going to mate with them.

Chris - But he has had a girlfriend hasn't he?

Henry - He has had a girlfriend, and this is the lovely story that got me interested in George in the first place. Very shortly after these tortoises were put into his enclosure, a Swiss zoology graduate passed through the island and volunteered her services at the research station. She got given the choice that she could either work on geckos or she could try and collect a sperm sample for George so that they could try some sort of artificial insemination. She chose George. She spent four months trying to build up an intimate relationship with George and earned herself this nickname: Lonesome George's girlfriend.

Chris - He's also had some death threats.

Henry - He has and particularly in 1995. He became embroiled in a conflict between conservationists and fisherman that rumbled on throughout the 1990s. The fisherman wanted to fish more, in particular a species called a sea cucumber. They're a very lucrative species that's sold to South East Asia and has aphrodisiac qualities. People wanted to fish it. But the conservationists could see that this was an unsustainable fishery and tried to impose a quota. The fisherman weren't happy with it and held a machete to George's head. The conservationists backed down and let them fish.

Chris - Had the sea cucumber succumbed?

Henry - The sea cucumber is ecologically extinct. It's now overfished to the point where the sea cucumbers can't even find each other to mate, so it's another sad story. Conservationists might be able to bring individuals back together and resurrect that population but while fisherman are intent on making money, it's still a problem there.

Chris - Tell us about the book you've written about this in case people want to buy it. Incidentally, we can offer you one copy of this book which Henry will sign.

Henry - It's called Lonesome George, it come out on the 3rd April and it uses George to explore conservation much more generally.


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