By Jennifer Jacquet
In September 2014 I gathered at the American Museum of Natural History with scientists, journalists, and museum staff for the unveiling of the taxidermied body of Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta Island giant tortoises. I met George when he was an octogenarian and I was a twenty-year-old volunteer at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galápagos. I sometimes fed him leaves in his pen. Now, just a little more than a decade later, as the curators pulled away the cloth covering the display case, I felt queasy and sad. Most people clapped, probably because they didn’t know what else to do. George was standing up, legs and head outstretched, looking uncharacteristically energetic. The conversation quickly turned to the taxidermy job. One magazine reporter said her readers wanted “all the gory details.”
Lonesome George’s death in 2012 marked the end of a long struggle for existence by giant tortoises against humans who had hunted and eaten them, and who had introduced goats to their island, which destroyed their habitat. I searched the room and saw one person crying. It was biologist James Gibbs, who had been the one to courier George’s carcass to the museum. We spoke about the Galápagos and the event we had just witnessed. Gibbs said he wished the museum staff had told everyone about the time island fishermen took the tortoise hostage in a successful ploy to increase fishing quotas. I wished the museum staff had said something about how difficult it is to be a member of the species that bears the responsibility for the Pinta tortoise’s demise.
When he was alive, Lonesome George was a captive reminder of biodiversity loss. One 2006 book called him “the only one of his kind left on earth — a symbol of the devastation man has wrought to the natural world in the Galápagos and beyond.” After his death, Washington Tapia, a researcher with the Ecuador National Park Service, told the New York Times it was like losing his grandparents. But even for people less intimate with him did his life and demise serve as a reminder of the mass extinction of species currently underway — the sixth…