GALAPAGOS STILL DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH
The mystique around Lonesome George is a wonderful thing. It is rooted in our eternal fascination with the end - whether it is our end or the end of a species or a way of life.
Think of movies and literature - the last man on earth, the only man on an island, the man floating in a space capsule out to the end of time.
Now Lonesome George is dead and is remembered more than the thousands of tortoises that were slaughtered for a century by sailors who regarded the giants as walking meat lockers who could be tossed in the hold until they were needed as a supplement to biscuits with worms.
Lonesome hardly impressed with looks. Giant tortoises are more grunt than grace. But he was the last of his kind, the last of his subspecies. There may still be 20,000 giant tortoises around, but all the attempts to perpetuate a version of this goliath failed.
When my oldest son John Henry and I visited the Galapagos Islands a dozen years ago, its primitive volcanic side had not been softened by the 180,000 tourists that come each year and want a little civilization to come too. The authorities, to their credit, want nature to rule.
Lonesome was up at the top of our islands' bucket list, up there with the hammerhead sharks and the boobies, although neither he nor his rudimentary pen would have stood out in any zoo. It was a solitary visit, although they say the crowds certainly did come later to clamber over each other as they photographed endlessly while Lonesome stretched and yawned.
I can't really say I found our visit particularly noteworthy. After all, there were hundreds of tortoises around, and I can recall heaps of them in a mud patch in an open field that would not have been out of place on an Ontario farm. You could wander around them and probably through them and on them except that those of us who take the trouble to travel across the Pacific to the fabled islands like to survey the wonders of nature without poking at shells and feathers.
Lonesome's story reads like a failed Harlequin Romance. It was 1972 when it was discovered that he was a little bit different from all the other tortoises. He came from La Pintas, one of the smallest islands in the Galapagos, and as we were famously told by Charles Dawin when he used the giant tortoises as one of his proofs for the theory of evolution, the tortoises and finches etc. from each island evolved differently because of their separation by the crashing seas.
Lonesome was said to be around 100, but no one really knows, because no one really knowns how long giant tortoises live. Maybe 200 years! There are those who dream that there are still tortoises alive in the Galapagos Islands that Darwin "rode" on his visit, according to his writings. I also seem to remember that the Darwin party ate a tortoise or two, that being the practical side of the environmental movement in the 1800s.
I found on my visit that sex play for Lonesome had been going on for five years while the world watched like peeping toms. Scientists kept introducing females of another subspecies to Lonesome, who wasn't interested. What isn't mentioned in the obits is what happened next. The zoologists figured that Lonesome was gay. Or maybe he just didn't remember the lecture on the birds and the bees that his parents gave him 100 years or so ago.
So they introduced a horny male and a hornier female and Lonesome watched their grunting copulations with interest but with no performance. That is rather remarkable because the heaving and moaning of giant tortoises are so remarkable that I recall the young women staring transfixed at a mating when Mary and I were visiting the famous San Diego zoo.
After trying to turn Lonesome into a sexual copycat, the experts went back to two females who they thought would be attractive to Lonesome if they left them together in Lonesome's unspectacular pen.. Whether he did or not is really not clear because the females laid eggs twice which were not fertile. Perhaps he needed some soft music and whatever tortoises like to drink when they want to forget that their life is just a mud pie.
The Islands are truly a magic place, reeling under the impact of the huge growth in the middle classes of the world who now have the money and time to travel to such distant lands. I would just like to remind them that in the Galapagos, you don't ask for turtle soup. It was taken off the menu a few decades ago.