Lonesome George, a Pattern of Extinction


Lonesome George

Lonesome George is dead.  When this news broke a couple
weeks ago most herpetologists and millions of other people around the world
knew what this meant; the rarest known species in the world, the Pinta
Tortoise, had gone extinct.  Since his discovery in 1971 his woeful tale has
been known around the world as a flagship example of the efforts to save
species from extinction.  Now, over 40 years later and despite numerous efforts
to breed him to closely related species, his struggle has come to an end.  The Pinta
Tortoise is not the first species to go extinct nor will it be the last. 
Scientists estimate that at least tens of thousands of species go extinct every
year and in every case there is a single individual that dies last, but very
rarely does that last survivor get any media attention and never in history has
one had so much as Lonesome George.  Many people reading this will not be able
to name a single other species that has gone extinct this year.  Sure, the
Eastern Cougar was declared extinct this year but when did the last of that
subspecies die?  Even though other species have had known last survivors,
called endlings, Lonesome George put a face on the extinction crisis in a way
that no other species had done before.  Hopefully his death will lead to
increased efforts to prevent other species from suffering the same fate.

Does the name Martha ring a bell?  Other than sharing her
name with some of your friends and relatives Martha was the last Passenger Pigeon
alive.  In the early 1800’s the species numbered in the billions but the
population declined drastically in the face of human persecution.  Although
there was no such thing as the Endangered Species Act at the time modest
efforts were made to protect the species in 1857 but the cries for protection
fell of deaf ears.  The common sentiment was that the species was under no
threat of extinction and did not need protection.  The last confirmed sighting
of a Passenger Pigeon in the wild was of one shot by a child with a BB gun in
1900.  Martha died in 1914 after nearly 30 years in captivity.  Only 4 years
later, Incas, the last surviving Carolina Parakeet, died in the same cage as

A Heath Hen named Booming Ben, a Tasmanian Tiger named
Benjamin, and a Pyrenean Ibex named Celia all share two things in common with
Lonesome George, Martha, and Incas.  At the end of their lives they were the
last of their kind and now they are gone.  Most extinct species, however, pass
without notice and almost none of the last surviving members are given names and
become endeared to the general public.  Not many people know what a Tecopa
Pupfish is or that in 1981 it was the first species removed from the endangered
species list and officially declared extinct.  The Madeiran Large White
Butterfly passed without much in the way of notice only 5 years ago.  The Pinta
Tortoise was by no means unique in the troubles it faced in its final years,
just in that so many people knew about it.

At this very moment other species are facing the same
problems as all the others that have already passed before them.  Only 4
Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtles are known to exist including a male and female
in captivity that biologists in China are hoping will reproduce.  Even if
reproduction efforts are successful, species that go so close to the brink and
rebound still have uncertain futures.  Before any hopes of recovery can be
realized the issues that caused the species to decline need to be addressed. 
Whether it’s habitat loss, persecution from humans, competition from invasive
species, or a combination of many factors there is little or no hope for
successful recovery until those factors are dealt with.  Often fixing these
issues puts the species at odds with economic development and conservation
efforts are met with fierce opposition.  Furthermore, when populations dip to
such low levels the lack of genetic diversity, exacerbated by inbreeding, leave
the populations much more susceptible to disease and there is the risk it will
be knocked back to the brink of extinction in a single wave.

  Enlarge Photo
Dr. Chris Jenkins, Chief Executive Officer of
The Orianne Society, releases one of 31 Eastern
Indigo Snakes in the third round of the successful
reintroduction program in the Conecuh National

Despite all of these hurdles there is hope.  Some species do
make comebacks but only time will tell if these success stories persist long
into the future.  Once thought extinct, the entire known population of
Black-footed Ferrets was brought into captivity to be bred for repatriation
efforts.   Extinct in the wild less than 20 years ago there were an estimated
650 individuals in the wild as of 2007 with confirmed natural reproduction in
the wild populations.  The entire surviving population of Kakapo parrot had to
be moved to a new island free of the introduced predators that pushed them so
close to extinction.  Dipping to around 60 individuals in the 1990’s, the
Kakapo population has since doubled and is increasing steadily.  The battle to
save this species from extinction is far from over but little by little,
progress is being made.  With continued effort these species might just make
it.  The final test will be to see whether or not the populations continue to
grow without human assistance.  The prognosis would have been much better for
both the Kakapo and Black-footed Ferret if aggressive efforts to save the
species began much sooner.

Imperiled species stand a much greater chance of survival if
action is taken to halt or reverse their decline long before populations dip to
such critical levels, (such as The Orianne Society’s efforts to save the
Eastern Indigo Snake and reintroduce it to former parts of its range).  The
Pinta Tortoise was in trouble long before anybody knew the name Lonesome George
and once an endangered species has a member who’s name is known around the
world it is exponentially more difficult, if not impossible, to save.  Many
might argue that there’s no point in trying to save species like the Pinta or
Yangtze Giant Softshell and that effort should be focused on species that stand
more of a fighting chance.  While this argument carries weight, animals such as
Lonesome George have done much in the way of raising awareness and money for
other endangered species around the world and there was always a chance that
the species might have been saved, until now.  People really cared about him
and efforts to recover his species sparked interest in the endangered species
crisis among people who otherwise never would have cared.  The Pinta Tortoise
is gone and will never come back but hopefully Lonesome George’s story and
death will help prevent other species from suffering the same fate.  Goodbye
George, you will be missed.