SANTA CRUZ, Galapagos Islands
It’s hard to tell whether Lonesome George, the last known survivor of his giant tortoise species, is truly lonely.
The nearly 100-year-old reptile hasn’t spent a day alone in four decades and recently moved in with two new potential girlfriends of a similar species.
Since George was discovered on his native Pinta Island in this volcanic archipelago in 1971, an army of park rangers and scientists has tried everything short of online dating to make him a dad. But the females deemed great catches for him appear to have become nightmare blind dates, some of which dragged on for years.
Ecuadorean officials have searched every square foot of Pinta, scoured remote villages in mainland Ecuador and sent letters to large and obscure zoos in hopes that there is a lonesome Pinta female living an anonymous existence.
“We’re always sending out letters to see if there might be one out there, somewhere,” Lonesome George’s main caretaker, Fausto Llerena said, speaking near the tortoise’s open-air habitat on Santa Cruz Island. “But all the searches have been in vain.”
The global effort to get Lonesome George to mate is perhaps the most visible part of a decades-long quest to reverse the toll that piracy, globalization and tourism have taken on the Galapagos Islands, among the most zealously conserved wildlife sanctuaries on Earth.
Ecuadoran officials and foreign experts have spent nearly half a century weeding out foreign species such as goats and rats in an attempt to undo the damage that began when people began frequenting the islands in the 1850s.
There have been notable successes, but playing reptile matchmaker for Lonesome George has befuddled the experts who have taken an interest in the lethargic tortoise’s amenability to romance — or lust.
“The thought of him marching forward toward a destiny of extinction is kind of — it’s motivating,” said Houston Zoo veterinarian Joe Flanagan, who has served as an adviser on conservation to officials in the Galapagos.
Tens of thousands of giant tortoises roamed the Galapagos when sailors first discovered the islands in the 1850s. The slow-moving reptiles can live for more than 200 years and weigh as much as 650 pounds.
Pirates in search of Spanish treasure ships and whalers in the 16th and 17th centuries were the animals’ first known human predators. After discovering that giant tortoises could live for months without food or water, sailors and pirates began cramming them into the holds of ships to have a dependable supply of meat during long journeys.
The tortoise populations were further destroyed when shipmen introduced goats, cattle and donkeys, which competed for grazing. Dogs and pigs ate the reptiles’ eggs. By the 1960s, when Ecuador stepped up efforts to restore the archipelago’s threatened ecosystems, two of 14 subspecies of giant tortoises had become extinct.
On Espanola Island, Ecuadoran officials found 14 adult tortoises, including just two males. They took the animals to the national park’s tortoise breeding center on Santa Cruz Island, fearing the subspecies would otherwise die off.
In 1971, national park officials traveled to Pinta, a 37-square-mile uninhabited island, to evict the goats that had upset its ecosystem. A young student on the goat-clearing mission spotted a lone giant tortoise when he lagged behind the group for a moment.
At the time, Ecuadoran officials and Galapagos experts thought the Pinta tortoise had become extinct. Lonesome George’s discovery set off a frantic search for other Pinta tortoises. “We’ve searched so much, but we haven’t managed to find another one,” Llerena said. “Just skeletons.”
Park officials initially exposed Lonesome George to random female tortoises, praying for a spark. But he showed little interest in the ladies that spent stints in his hilly, shrub-covered pen. He had a voracious appetite, and for years caretakers fed him generously, which possibly kept him from being more active during what should have been his sexual peak.
“He was overweight,” said Flanagan, the vet. “He had little or no interest because he was not fit.”
Park officials slimmed him down in preparation for his first date with two female tortoises that moved into his habitat in 1991. The females from Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island had been extraordinarily fertile in the past and were at the time believed to be genetically close to Lonesome George.
Alas, park officials said, there was nary a spark.
Eventually, Lonesome George began courting the females, which were assigned numbers but not names, said Llerena, 70. But there was only one known instance in which Lonesome George went all the way. The females laid eggs in 2007 and 2008, but none hatched.
As the years passed, Lonesome George became somewhat of a cause celebre, drawing the interest of scientists worldwide and spawning a cottage industry on the islands.
There’s Lonesome George & Co., a clothing boutique chain where T-shirts go for as much as $59. There are cheaper T-shirts that make light of the tortoise’s inability to reproduce, with varying degrees of tastefulness. And there’s the Lonesome George dish at the Rock, Santa Clara’s most popular eatery: fish fillet with almonds and ginger-lemon butter.
Last year, a team of American experts carried out a new round of genetic testing on George’s female companions. The results showed the females were not as genetically close to Lonesome George as initially thought, possibly explaining why the trio never managed to procreate.
Meanwhile, efforts to breed the once-endangered Espanola tortoises had succeeded. There are now about 2,000 of them from the original population of 14.
The scientists determined that the Espanola tortoises were genetically closer to the Pinta than those from Wolf Volcano, and in January, two Espanola dames unceremoniously replaced the ones from Wolf.
“He’s getting to know them,” Llerena said. “Lately he seems more animated.”
The females spend most of their time on the opposite side of the pen, but Llerena said he hasn’t lost hope.
“Many people ask why we don’t give him Viagra,” the park ranger joked. “But we need to let nature take its course.”