Lonesome George and extinction: A matter of one life and death

Nadine Bells
Daily Brew

One turtle dies, an entire species becomes extinct. That's the story of 100-year-old giant tortoise Lonesome George. His death on at Galapagos National Park's breeding centre marked the end of his kind.

Lonesome George was discovered on Pinta Island in 1972, at a time when giant tortoises of his kind — known as Geochelone nigra abingdoni — were already believed to be extinct. Instead, it appeared that he was the last one.

All attempts to bred the tortoise failed.

"The plight of Lonesome George provided a catalyst for an extraordinary effort by the government of Ecuador to restore not only tortoise populations throughout the archipelago but also improve the status of other endangered and threatened species," the park said.

There are 20,000 giant tortoises remaining in the Galapagos. They are believed to have a lifespan of up to 200 years.

Lonesome George's death is a wake-up call. Species at risk of extinction can, in fact, become extinct, despite the best efforts of scientists to protect and repopulate the species.

Here's a list of species we've lost in the last 40 years.

Currently at risk of meeting the same fate is the greater bamboo lemur. Like Lonesome George, this lemur was rediscovered in 1972 long after it was believed to be extinct. Less than 250 remain, with a captive breeding programme in Madagascar hoping to help the critically endangered bamboo-eating primates thrive.

The New Zealand greater short-tailed bat might be extinct already, with the last population estimate coming in at fewer than 50.

Thanks to widespread hunting — and habitat destruction — lowland gorillas are now also considered critically endangered. Conservation areas now exist in numerous national parks in Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo and Gabon. These efforts also aim to protect the species from the deadly Ebola virus.

Fortunately, just as we have tragic tales of species lost, we have a history of species saved. Prairie dogs, whooping cranes, grizzly bears and bald eagles are on the list of species that have been rebounded from risk of extinction.

Human intervention isn't always successful. But since we're often at fault for a species' demise in the first place, shouldn't it be our responsibility to at least try to protect what's left?