Tuesday 11 November 2014

More on Lonesome George - The Icon of Stubborness

In my blog, I focus on nature in Galapagos - the flora and fauna that define us and make us the most unique ecosystem anywhere in the world. One of the most iconic symbols of conservation in our archipelago is Lonesome George. When he died in September 2012, I wrote a commemorative post, thinking that would be my last about him, But, that's been far from true. I wrote about him again when he was officially designated as a symbol of our cultural heritage. Then, I posted on Facebook about the plan to taxidermy him and about his New York Museum show and ultimate return to Galapagos in 2015.  And, I anticipated writing an announcement when he finally returns to Galapagos. But, I never expected to be telling you about what has turned out to be one of his most enduring qualities: George was and remains one stubborn, I mean really stubborn, tortoise.

What we all know about George is that year after year, he stubbornly refused to mate no matter what efforts were made in that regard.  If fact, everything including tortuga porn was used to stimulate him. "No way!," he said with his actions. When Super Diego was put in George's pen in an effort to stimulate George into some action, George became equally adamant that if he didn't get the girl, neither would Diego. "No way!" he expressed once more, by physically pushing Diego away from the damsels.  He pushed him so hard that a portion of Diego's shell cracked off leaving Diego with a very unique, if broken, look.

When he died, a decision was made to send George to New York to be preserved in taxidermy. An effective, moving and informative video about George in life and during the process of preservation has been made by the Museum of Natural History:

Now, more than a half of a year after projected, George's preservation is complete. Many of us had been wondering what took so long and now we know. According to the New York Times, George remained stubborn even after death. Simply put, he refused to dry out. In that refusal, he seemed to be retelling the story of the demise of the Pinta Tortoises, of which he had been the last remaining survivor.

What George had even after death in amazing abundance and what prevented the scientists from completing the taxidermy on him was oil. And it was tortoise oil that drew the pirates who plundered the Galapagos Islands to over hunt them and cause their demise. The pirates took as many tortoises as they could lay their hands on, far more than they needed, and threw them on their ships. The tortoises provided a source of food and heating oil. They were piled on top of each other. Ultimately, many were thrown overboard. The practice was not only disgusting and inhumane, but led to the extinction of the species. And, yet - to get back to my story - it's that very same oil that kept leeching from Lonesome George and held up the taxidermy process. The irony does not escape me.

Here's what I've learned about taxidermy, in the most simple terms:
  • George was disemboweled and frozen before being send to New York to the expert taxidermist.
  • An anatomically accurate mannequin of clay over foam was made for the legs neck, head and tail.
  • The skin and shell had to be attached separately to the mannequin.
  • Before being attached the shell and skin had to be tanned, which couldn't happen until George (like any animal) was totally degreased.
  • Degreasing requires drying and (unlike other animals) George wouldn't dry, probably because his skin had been adapted over centuries to the hot dry climate of Galapagos.
  • Special dehumidifiers were built to dry George out and the process took months longer than anticipated.
  • Once he was finally dry, George was painted realistically to look like he did when first found on Pinta Island.
  • Hand-painted tortoise eyes were added. They are called "the most accurate tortoise eyes ever created."
Finally, Lonesome George in death looked like Lonesome George in life and is now ready to return to the world and to stand as a symbol of Galapagos.

So, George, here's to you. We all loved you. We recognize you as the symbol of and monument to conservation. You defied the odds. You lived longer than any of your species. You baffled and frustrated scientists for years while you lived. After you died, you continued to frustrate. You were stubborn and steadfast to the end. You kept reminding us that your species didn't need to be wiped out; your body communicated the story of your species' history and man's unnecessary impact on its future. Slowly - like the tortoise that you are - you finally allowed the scientists to immortalize you.

 Thank you Lonesome George for the lessons and for remaining a symbol for the past and the future of Galapagos.

All photographs from the New York Times and the Charles Darwin Foundation.

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