Lonesome George Readied for New York Debut (includes video)

Lonesome George in 2006

Mike Weston / flickr.com

Lonesome George in 2006

In life, he was known as “the rarest creature in the world”–the late Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta Island tortoises and a Galápagos conservation icon.  Now, the caretakers of his remains hope that in death, George will continue to carry his message of conservation to future generations.

His preserved body will go on public display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York on September 19 and will be on exhibit until January 4th, 2015, before being returned to Ecuador.  As he was being readied for the exhibit, expert taxidermist George Dante told ScientificAmerican.com “We’re leaning towards a very regal walking pose, with his neck extended.”

Dante told the blog that while working on the exhibit, he developed an attachment that he believes others will share. “There’s nothing like standing there face to face with George,” he said. “There’s an emotional connection as soon as you see him.”

Dr. Linda Cayot, a herpetologist who serves as a science advisor to the Galápagos conservancy, heartily approves of putting George on center stage in New York:  “I think George can continue to work to save other tortoises in death,” she told Galápagos Digital last year, “Ending up as an eternal icon for conservation is a fit ending.”

September 18 on the eve of the exhibit, Cayot will be joined at the museum by Johanna Barry of the Galápagos Conservancy, Dr. James Gibbs of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Dr. Arturo Izurieta, Director of the Galápagos National Park and moderator Dr. Eleanor Sterling of the museum for a panel entitled “Lonesome George and the Galápagos Today: What the Tortoise Taught us.”

One of the things the tortoise taught us is a sad lesson about the devastating consequences of man’s callous attitude toward nature.  For years, mostly in the 19th century, pirates, whalers and fishermen called on Pinta Island, collecting the tortoises for food until there were no more to be found.  By the early 20th century, the tortoises were widely thought to be extinct, especially after humans introduced goats to the island in 1959. The goats multiplied and consumed much of the vegetation on Pinta, leaving the landscape denuded.

So in 1972, the discovery of Lonesome George rocked the scientific world.  He was taken to Santa Cruz Island where scientists tried to breed him in hopes of bringing back the Pinta tortoise.

Those efforts proved fruitless as George showed little interest in mating.  Then 4o years after he was found, George, approximate age 100 plus, died at the Galápagos National Park headquarters on Santa Cruz Island where he had been visited by hundreds of thousands of Galápagos tourists.  He had no survivors–none.  The Pinta tortoise was finally extinct.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York

ingfbruno via Wikimedia Commons

The American Museum of Natural History in New York

The plans to put his body on public display haven’t exactly met with universal approval.  After a story about the museum exhibit was posted on Facebook, some Ecuadorians wondered why George was carted off to New York.  One commentator posted: “Will he become a Gringo?”

The official explanation is that the preservation work, paid for by the Galápagos Conservancy, took place in the USA because the Galápagos National park wanted the tortoise cared for by one of the leading taxidermists in the world. The museum coordinated the effort and got the right to put George on display until January.  So that leaves the question: when will George head back to Galápagos? That won’t happen any time soon.

Once the exhibit is over in January, George will be sent back to the taxidermist for additional preservation work before his body is declared fit for international travel.

A spokesperson for the park confirmed widespread speculation that George’s next stop is Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, where he can be displayed under strict temperature and humidity controls.  The exact museum has not yet been named. The spokesperson said that Galapágos lacks the proper facilities for preserving the tortoise’s body although it’s possible that such facilities might be constructed in the future.

Park Director Izurieta said in a letter to the editor of the Ecuadorian newspaper El Universo that George would be exhibited at an “Ecuadorian museum of the highest level.” The goal, said Izurieta, is to have “A Lonesome George embalmed for centuries.”

Watch the Natural History Museum’s video about the preservation of Lonesome George.