The Face of Extinction – who killed Lonesome George? Galapagos diary # 3

The pin-up boy for conservation is now known as The Face of Extinction.

lonesome george 5

Lonesome George stands pickled in New York while whispers surf the streets of his Galapagos home. Was the father of a never-born-generation killed by the scientists who ‘saved him’? Have conservationists wiped another species off the Earth?

You hop a bus, ferry and then a 4WD taxi from Galapagos airport into the nerve-center of life on Santa Cruz. It is one of the most beautiful rides on Earth. Terra firma, Galapagos-style, is a heady masala of flavours Africa, Australia, Greece and Sci Fi blended along an undullous ribbon of tarmac that surfs some of the world’s least storied landscape.

galapagos road The road rides like a dolphin through the gently rolling landscape and Ooo – there! A giant tortoise slowly mows the verge. And Ooo – there! The scrub parts to reveal huge craters glittering with indigo waters in which nymph nor pharaoh, Viking nor tribesman ever saw their own reflection. tortoise

This is a land almost free of human history. A land not yoked and laden by empire, legend or myth. Here – this air unfettered by words – has a glitter about it.

A peculiar brightness, like falling in love. Blazing through the untold wilderness I feel – for one hour of grace – the heavy load of my own stories dissolving. A thrill like that first rush of champagne.

An echo, is it, of that translucent state of Life, before the Beginning – the human one, with its Word, and resultant cacophony.

Everything in me wants to just STOP RIGHT HERE.

I want to whisper to the driver, “Let me have Galapagos like this.” Before the petrol stations, shanties, cafes and ports clutter up the innocence of it…“let’s just stop here.

Let me creep out gently into the wild and lie down in it for a month or a year or a lifetime.”

But such things are Not Allowed. The human animal on the Galapagos islands may not walk off into the wild. May not even set a naked foot upon her unless escorted by a guide in those regulated territories set aside for us, at prices set in US Dollar – unless they work for National Parks.

And so, we barrel on. Into human habitat with its scent of petroleum and barbecued chicken. The taxi releases me from its air conditioned bubble, and I wilt instantly on the parched cement of Galapagos’ main business district.

Puerto Ayora rears out of rippling heat like a building site on the industrial skirts of an Orwellian hell. The town has a heat-haze reminiscent of bridling stallions composed of vipers of cooked air, diesel fume, dollars and desperation. It thrumps with the heavy, sweaty rhythm of industry as usual in a habitat that is just too hot for this sort of carry on.

A chaos of echoes rebounds off every surface and the people melt, shimmer, wobble and seep body fluids into their cheap Chinese lycra as they set about their myriad ways of moving dollars from pocket to pocket – like everywhere else.

I gaze across the shop fronts; pharmacies, burger joints, hardware, beer fridges, ticket vendors for last minute cruising, dive shops and a huge, imposing hospital smack bang before the port, with dozens of people sprawled out around its flanks.

The waterfront is mid-way through a surgical beautification process involving the demolition of its natural visage, and replacement with one whose parts were imported from China. What stretches between me and the shimmering sea is the last naked stretch of undeveloped foreshore, receiving its final nourishment of sunshine, birdsong and breeze. Ahead, the long boulevard is already buried beneath 10 inches of desiccated sand and brick, bringing Galapagos that suspicious glory known as ‘development’.

The ‘beautified’ malecon will soon look more like the photo-shopped sexy future waterfront property developers have been flogging off to consortiums and other gamblers lately. And less like it has for those wordless Millennia it has been here.

Millennia which manged to create and nurture all life as we know it, without any mind, nor mouth having ever conceived that word, ‘progress’.

With one foot on the doomed sand, and the other on the new red paving I can feel in my own flesh the actual reality of that much argued about ‘possibility’ even a half-baked blonde can testify to; climate-change.

The beautification work is having a sort of open-air microwave effect on things. To my right side, new bricks are evidently much, much hotter than the remnant sand road to my left. The baking sheet of new road roasts the last flesh of an already enfeebled onshore breeze, which has picked up so much sun off the posh glass, and relentless cement along the foreshore that you can just about see the glitter dying in mid-air and falling to the ground in heaps of ash.

On an island where conservationists and biologists have swollen tongues from all their raving on about understanding and conserving the environment it’s kinda kooky, and sortof sickly to witness an entire ecosystem being ploughed into a shopping strip right under the noses of the world’s most noisy NGOs. galapport

Being the optimistic type, I decide not to dwell on all this and dash brightly across the bitumen to feast upon the waters that (allegedly) helped Charles Darwin, and then all humanity change our view of life, the universe and everything.

Ah – the heavenly delight of that rush to the sea!

There she lies… twinkling and rippling in a bright, cool seduction. I lean over the railings to drink the salty nectar of the far, far Pacific, and seek the shapes we all come here for: shape of iguana, shape of penguin, pelican and our own nature-loving selves. galaptrack2 Lovely red crabs skitter about on a mean-looking rubble of black lava. The calm, fizzing waters of wide, wide sea breathe off puffs of redeeming ions and… what’s that? And that? Oh! Shit! They’re Everywhere! galaptrack

As my eyes adjust to Galapagos frequency iguana, seals, pelicans, rays and other creatures start composing themselves into view… and the weirdness turns up a notch.

My cones and rods adjust their apertures wildly, but no.. it’s actually real – every moving thing, every single living thing larger than an ant on the foreshore of Santa Cruz is attached to an antenna.

galaptrack4 Perhaps scientists are comforted by a scene such as this: wild things zipping about here and there with belts, buckles, or bolts driven through them from which transmitters gossip up to satellites and satellites report back to computers key facts about ‘life’.

For me, there is a rage about it, this horror at watching innocent creatures turned into machines by organisations that claims to protect and serve nature, but are in fact the full expression of a Big Brother impulse, practicing on animals, before they get to people.

I’d spit into the water, if it wasn’t filthy already, and am scowling heavily over the railings when the Fates  call out CUT! And send in an emergency angel.

Stage right: He arrives on a clapped out bicycle, smelling of Old Spice and deepwater.

Mario drops his rickety chariot under a sagging palm with a mortal-ish clatter and flings himself at the view beside me – his heart to the horizon and his arms spread crucifixion.

“Fuckers.” He says. And turns to beam at me deliciously.

I can tell, from the strange radiance of his freshly laundered dive-shirt, his symmetrical grin and luxurious irises,  that he is of the Order of Good Men that have forever ridden into my biography on rusted-out chariots – and saved me from too much reality.

The mingled elixirs of a mutual horror, bewilderment and willingness to trip the lightfantastic anyway etch matching symbols across our gaze, mine blue, his brown, as they fuze in a magical helix across the beauty and the beastliness of Mario’s radio-active islands, this Galapagos.

“Passionfruit gelato?” I offer.

We set off, my wilting story-burdened self, and Mario, sizing up visibly under his sudden destiny as leading man to maiden in cognitive dissonance..

The best gelato on Galapagos is to be found at Galapagos Deli. About this, at least, there is no doubt.

The owners may be scowly, and serve the most unimaginative scrambled eggs on the enchanted isles, but their gelato is to die for.

He chooses chocolate, and I have passionfruit, of course, while Mario tells me in a bubbly Spanglish how he was born and raised among the mangroves, the mountains, lava fields, rock pools and deep water wonderlands of Galapagos. How he knows and loves the islands but is forbidden now, by National Parks, to visit the places of his youth. Despite his life-long passion for nature, biology, diving, exploring and his beautiful, rich mind full of intimate wisdom for the islands, he is forbidden from making a living telling his stories.

He cannot sahre the gifts of 45 years as a second generation actual Galapaguano – because he can’t pass the National Parks test.

This seems kinda smelly to me. It reminds me of the hellofatodo I had trying to assist Australian Aboriginal elders to share the meaning of the dreamtime stories their own families had carved into the rock in the Royal National Park near Sydney. I tell Mario about how there, any rambler can stumble on the sites and chip away at them with a pen-knife if he likes, National Parks guides can lead walkers if they feel like it, but if an Aboriginal wants to tell those stories Rangers will call the cops to get rid of him.

True story. It was me that had to deal with it when Uncle Max Harrison, the last surviving elder of the entire region, dared to share stories on his own ancestral land one day, and all manner of National Park hell came down upon him.

We sigh. We eat ice-cream. And Mario and I pull our focus in around our little cones of gold and brown to share our own stories: about the histories and futures we’d lost. Mine was a fresh wound.

The baby, neverborn in Vilcabamba. Whose American father had scarpered off to live with shamanic entrepreneurs and practice Thai boxing and psychedelic journeying further up the Andes when the last ultrasound said, No Longer Viable..

That was a loss, caused by forces cruel, benevolent, selective or whatever… and I had managed it. I dug the grave myself. In the pretty spiral veggie patch the fleet-footed father had built. It was the only seed ever planted there, while we lived and our love died in Vilcabamba.

I managed it, but did not really survive it in the sense that while I had all the basic signs of life one could send to a satellite, I hadn’t had an actual experience of life other than struggling for nearly a whole year now.

These are things your friends can’t really help with. Perhaps nothing much can. There was only one woman in the town where I lived who hugged me when she saw me afterwards. A man mentioned it once too, not longer after, he said, “Oh, yeah.. I thought you were getting fat!”

Other than that, everybody just ignored it. “Life goes on.” “Onward and upward”. “No use crying over spilled milk…” etc. It was weird. But people are weird – or just frightened of dealing with the losses in life, having been so focused, mainly, on keeping on keeping on.

I had a deep, unshakeable case of Actual Sadness that was not so much about the neverborn baby, but about having been abandoned. About indifference.

Abandoned, I can tell you. Sucks. It is like dancing about in a field of daisies one minute, then falling quite suddenly through a hole in the world and finding yourself in a cement coffin. That’s what it feels like. And it goes on for aaaages.

Ages and ages and eons and suchlike are crammed into minutes and days and weeks when you feel abandoned. Your body, weirdly, keeps doing what needs to be done to keep itself working, but the rest of you (that which may or may not even exist, according to atheists and reasonable types) is in an agony of just wanting to curl up under a flowering tree and dissolve into the soil.

Knowing he has nothing but the slightest grasp of English I feel totally safe to describe all this to Mario at the gelato bar, my passionfruit dripping between my fingers, and chocolate melting on his tongue.

“This feeling, where is it?” I ask, feeling sheltered by the language barrier. “How do you measure it?” “Is it against life, or part of it? Is it killing us, or making us fit for the next round?

“And is it only humans who feel this? O, do you think, that all life knows what it is, to feel lost or lonely or sad?”

I’ve wondered, and any sane person surely has – why we’ve never bothered to plot grief or sadness, loss, love or joy on our compass for understanding the world we live in – as if those were unique to humanity alone.

love for animals 3

I’ve been ashamed and horrified to witness how our greedy monopoly on feelings and morality have enabled us to inflict a cruelty on other lifeforms, and the planet around us, as we obsess over ‘facts’ about atoms and survival, about chemical urges and mechanical impulses that end up being embarrassingly wrong, sooner or later.

“What do you think, Mario? Those antennae feeding off the pulses and movements of living things on Santa Cruz, do they tell us anything at all about what it is to be alive as iguana, penguin, sea lion or shark? Do animals feel what is is to be alive, or are they wind-up toys we can know by their clockwork?”

It’s a wonderful thing to pour your heart out to a man who doesn’t understand your language. It’s very freeing. I recommend it.

I was basking in the lightness of having just set one story free to the air, when Mario was gripped with a primal shudder and bent over in a crumpled shape across the last of his gooey gelato.

“Lonesome George,” he moaned.

“They kill him also,” he wailed..

And a large chocolaty hiccup announced the arrival of a huge orb of glittering tear-water which exploded itself into smithereens across the last of his ice-cream.

“The National Park. They kill him. They kill all of us here too.” I’m stunned and afraid to see this bounding man crushed into misery as he tells me of the loss of a tortoise, and how it felt for the people who love this, their home, Galapagos. lonesome george 5

The story of Lonesome George is a world-famous narrative in devastation, conservation, animal-meddling and human idiocy that inspired, and then saddened the world, leaving an extinct species and lot of merchandise in its wake.

Wiki puts him in a nutshell like this: “Lonesome George (c. 1910 – June 24, 2012) was a male Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii) and the last known individual of the subspecies. In his last years, he was known as the rarest creature in the world. George serves as a potent symbol for conservation efforts in the Galápagos Islands and throughout the world.”

George had been rendered Lonesome by human development of his Galapagos homeland, actually, and when said same humans later found him there alone they swiftly agreed they knew just what to do with him and whisked him away from the only thing he had left as the last of his species on Earth – his native land and habitat.

From then on he had been studied in captivity, sampled, used as a tourist attraction and revenue generator by his ‘rescuers’ at the Charles Darwin Research Station and pestered, coaxed and even man-handled into mating for more than 40 years.

All attempts at salvaging George’s species failed dismally, and the last ever Pinta Island tortoise finally died, taking his right to choose non-paternity with him after decades in captivity in a strange land, constantly pestered, bothered and masturbated by the humanity that had wiped out all the others.

After they found his body, National Parks said, “His life-cycle had come to an end”. But many, including David Attenborough sighed, saying that Lonesome George may have died about 100 years before his time. Even if he was one hundred, as Parks claim, wikipedia regrets to sign off on his file, writing that this “is not especially old for a Galápagos tortoise.”

lonesome george2 Why environmentalists claim his story as a symbol for their good work is somewhat a mystery.

Mario doesn’t agree though.

He says Lonesome George is the perfect symbol for conservationists and the bureaucrats who have muscled in on the local people for control of the islands and custody of its legends.

“And they can be use his grave too!” he says, rallying up to full size.

“They kill our last one, the last beautiful baby of Pinta Island! They kill him in their prison, with their sad life they force him to survive. “His grave is their truth about what they know of life.”

Mario is commanding the space with the passion of a wounded parent. I can see, it’s for real – Lonesome George did not just ‘go extinct’, he was stolen from his home, miss-treated, and died of misery, lost forever as a being, a loved creature and a symbol for the people who fear they too will be destroyed by forces who don’t understand what it is to be a free being, alive on the land.

“They kill him with the depression. All for money!” he shakes his heavy curls. “The National Park,” he spits out the words. “is dangerousssss. The science, it has no heart inside it. It is only for de money!

“These people coming here, they do not know nothing of the true nature. What is it? I tell you now, what you learn when you grow up with the land, free in de nature. You learn this: the life it is peace. Peace with the land, peace with the water, peace with what needs done to survive, and just let everything else be as it is.”

For the science people, they see only control. They kill for control, and they think it is for understanding. But their thinking, coming from books, and not from the the really living. They forget the power of the world, and hunt for power for themselves – dividing, dividing, dividing into boxes and dollars, and how you say? De Facts!

Mario is angry and sad, he is full of passion and grief. I believe what he says – it’s suddenly obvious to me.

But Lonesome George, I decide not to tell him, has no grave to be worshiped, or sold tickets to.

After he died, National Parks immediately announced that they would have the body embalmed so the tortoise could be preserved for future generations.lonesome george 4 This was the only act of ‘preservation’ the organisation was to actually achieve. It was not without its problems though. Bitter feuds over custody of the corpse are ongoing.

Lonesome George was never, ever to know the scent or the relief of his native soil – even in death. he was frozen, skinned, disemboweled, polished, petrified, forced into a standing pose that tortoises only rarely assume, and used as the poster-boy for the un-dead by organisations dedicated to the history of human thinking.

George became known as ‘the face of extinction’. But even more horrific to consider is National Geographic’s news in 2012 that, “in an area known as Volcano Wolf—on the secluded northern tip of Isabela, another Galápagos island—the researchers have identified 17 hybrid descendants of C. abingdoni within a population of 1,667 tortoises.”

So that would make the whole Lonesome George story a fiasco of bad science, human ignorance, and bad zoo-keeping.

Is this really the best science can come up with still? And yet claim for itself a status higher than other sorts of knowledge!

To the disgust of some of the locals on Galapagos, George remains a symbol for the islands – both as a National Parks scientific playground, and as a reminder of the rare and wondrous life-forms that lived in this tough habitat, and inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Others see him as his species as a sacrifice to the cruelty of the scientific mind.

Darwin’s observation of differences between tortoises on the many islands helped him understand how animals can adapt to their conditions. But he had nothing to say on how they might adapt to being pushed to extinction by ‘progress’, then rescued from the brink by a humanity that thinks it has a grip on the realities of life on Earth.

“Sometimes, I hate the place,” groans Mario. “The research station, it has made the whole place into their prison, for experiments and torture and disrespect. Life here – this life is a trap made of science!”

We sit in a silence half miserable, half beautiful, until Mario shakes off the spell and calls the waitress for paper and a pen.

“But for you,” he says. “I can make a solution. Here.”

He touches the nib of the biro to his tongue and leans down in earnest over a fresh page in the waitress’ notebook.

“Let’s have a boy,” he smiles. And he draws him.

Your son. And he will be mine.” “What will we call him? Who have you loved?”

“Michael,” I say.

“Ah, lovely,” he beams.

“On his left side we will name him, for me, Javir, and on the right – because of all we know that is beautiful in this life, we call him Momento!” he declares proudly.

“And here, above him, we write the name of his destiny, the gift of his mother: wisdom.” Mario and I beam at the boy he has made us.

‘Yes, he is fine,” says the happy father. “But he needs muscles. He is strong.” And he sketches in some ample biceps. IMG_2466 “Perfect! An excellent boy.” Mario tears our son from the book, holds him up to the light and hands him to me saying, “I give you our baby – the hope of our Galapagos.”

6 thoughts on “The Face of Extinction – who killed Lonesome George? Galapagos diary # 3

  1. Compelling and disturbing, both as a personal narrative and an exposition of idiocy. What the Botherers can do while they are sending us to Infierno Nuevo.

    Crusty Old Editor Note: I think when you write “let’s just stop here.
    Let me creep out gently into the wild and lay down in it for a month or a year or a lifetime.” that you mean “lie down”. 🙂

  2. I never respond to blog posts (you’re the first ever!) but I found several points in your story to be either misunderstood or, for lack of a better phrase, flat-out wrong. I don’t mean to insult you or your friends you were with, I just would like to share my opinion (I’ll explain in order of how I read your post, so I won’t be jumping around, just to let you know!).

    You said you found all the devices strapped on the groups of animals you saw disturbing. I would be shocked as to how many there were too, but you realize what they’re there for- many of the Galapagos animals being endangered, and probably most not even studied closely yet- it should really make you glad, not upset you. I DO agree with what your friend Mario is talking about. Even the national parks and other sites in the area I live around have problems with the Native Americans. What the solution for that is, I honestly cannot tell you.

    Like I wrote in the beginning, I feel (personally, this is just my opinion) that some of your thinking is misguided. National Parks are not here to push people away or strap animals to machines, they’re here to give us natural wonders to enjoy. I went to Muir Woods recently, and if that place wasn’t a park today, there would be even less redwood trees than there are now. If you believe parks are the opposite, then I think you’re missing the point about conservation.

    I suggest you and your friends do some research on the Galapagos, its natural history, and how it got to be where it is today- its story is really incredible, I’d think you’d love it!

    Now, I will get into the parts about Lonesome George. His story is fascinating, isn’t it? You say George’s rescuers thought they were doing right for him. They actually were: Most of the Galapagos have been infested with feral animals (the goats are the biggest problem), and they ate most of what the tortoises in particular need.

    Your friend says the national park killed him: Not true, they LOVED him. Did you know that George’s primary caretaker didn’t feel like he’d lost a tortoise but his best friend instead? An official affiliated with the center actually broke down and cried when he learned of George’s death- he said it was the equivalent of losing your grandparents. You can read his keeper’s feelings if you use this link (by the way, I am NOT part of this website/organization, I just thought it was lovely):

    Finally, you believe George was stolen and never to know his native land. I REALLY hate to say this, but that’s flat-out wrong. He was already there for 40 years (maybe even longer, no one knows when he hatched) and his island was being ravaged by goats. And we’d never be able to return him to the island because there’s no humans on Pinta Island. Most of the “human development” live on the big mainland islands, the others are off-limits to tourists. I’m not Lonesome George, but if I were him, I would rather be taken to live and be pampered and have people come and learn about what impacts they have on nature, than wandering around and possibly starving on a goat-infested island that could possibly not have any other tortoises.

    Your description of your miscarriage was very sad. I’m so sorry you had to go through that 😦
    Anyway, I’ve taken enough of your time and I hope I got my opinion through in a clear way. I sincerely appreciate your reading it, though!

  3. Hi Bex, thanks for writing and sharing your thoughts – I’ve been hoping for more of a conversation on this post.
    First, please don’t feel so bad about criticising my thoughts or research – that is what an open forum is for, so please enjoy that freedom.
    And second, don’t under-estimate the extent of my research : )
    I lived on Galapagos for a long period researching and interviewing locals, fishermen, scientists, guides and authorities for these and other stories. The rest of the work I am sure you would find hair-raising.
    All is very not what it is marketed as or reported to be on Galapagos (or anywhere else, really) and I am afraid that while your views are classic, they are somewhat naive.
    First, National Parks is not in the world – any world – to provide us natural wonders. We already have natural wonders. That is the primary state of the world. Natural Parks is the administration that is put in charge of making a profit off and ‘protecting’ these places, supposedly free of human interference – which in itself is an untruth.
    I have seen Parks adminstrations around the world pull off horrendous deeds – including banning Australian Aboriginal people from walking their own homelands in the Royal National Park, in NSW – and poisoning their grounds extensively in West Australia.
    In Galapagos, National Parks have managed to become one of the most despised organisations at work, unilaterally – that includes guides, fishermen, legislators, boat operators, tour guides and tourists I spoke to … perhaps not scientists, or conservatives such as yourself, who are either paid by Parks, or spell-bound by the idea that ‘scientific research’ will save the day. (Conveniently forgetting that science is in fact, the monster under the precariously tilted bed we are rocking in today).
    Lonesome George is a great symbol of folly on Galapagos.
    And of middle class interference and sentimentalism.
    The fishermen, the locals were always against him being kept in a cage and used as a tourist attraction. If you read the article, you will see that those are the views expressed through the local voice, and not my own. There are many, many people – thoughtful people, experienced people, who are furious over this and other meddlesome acts which display a gross misunderstanding of the natural order, while professing to be ‘fixing’ its imbalances.
    To put animals into captivity and use them to turn a profit under the guise of conservation is heinous and revealing of the schism that so often occurs in the minds of bureaucrats. What was and is needed is to STOP meddling. Animals don’t disappear because that aren’t studied by science or strapped to machines. They disappear because they are meddled with.
    If National Parks care so much about individuals why is there no vet rescue for the hundreds of seal pups butchered each year by tourist boat props, as there is almost everywhere else in the world?
    Why are young seals allowed to die on the boardwalks and a strict policy of ‘don’t interfere with nature’ boasted about? While even here in remote Australia we have animal rescue, wild animal care services and frown on those who neglect injured wildlife – out of the sentience of each being, and not any moral blather garbled about as administrative procedure.
    Why would Parks consciously allow individual animals to suffer in plain sight, as I saw horrifyingly often myself, as say it is in respect of nature, then keep one in exile on the wrong island, and sell his remains for a profit, in blatant contradiction to nature?
    Why? .. because it made them look good to have the so-called ‘last one’ in their hands? like they were saving the day? and it gave them a mascot? and it was consistent with dumb decision making from start to finish?
    You write about how, if you were Lonesome George, you would prefer to be pampered… oh dear – this is exactly the problem.
    How can we entrust THE WILD to totally DOMESTICATED and pampered human beings?? They, and perhaps you, know nothing of the power, the irreplaceable joy, the native dignity and bliss of just being left alone in your own indigenous wilderness to live wild – free, whatever the terms.

  4. Oh my gosh! You responded! I didn’t think you would 😀 I don’t time right now to go through your whole reply but the dealings with the Aboriginals do make sense to me, as over here the U.S. has the same problem. It also isn’t just from national parks either, it’s also from regular everyday people out on the lake who APPARENTLY cannot be patient for four days and not be out on the lake!

    (One tribe has a coming-of-age training for girls and at the end of the four days, they’re supposed to swim across the lake to the other side where their family is waiting).

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