Friday, July 6, 2012

The Last of a Dying Breed

We hear the word "extinction," and many of us still think dinosaurs. The last of its kind? My kids' thoughts turn to scenes from The Last Unicorn

"She's the last unicorn in the world," laments Schmendrick the
blundering magician (self-proclaimed last of the red hot swamis.)
But extinction is not a prehistoric concept, and "last" is not simply a work of fiction. Just ask Lonesome George:

Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise. Photo by putneymark / Wikimedia
Well, you can't really ask George. He died last Sunday, and with him died the entire subspecies of the Galápagos Pinta Island tortoise, which is said to have weathered the ups and downs of some 10 million years. 

George was, in fact, the last of his kind. 

But, hey, we humans have a knack for the quick and dirty, and it seems our species' sudden prevalence was more than even this hearty chelonian could endure.  

"My son, your ineptitude is so vast, your incompetence so profound, that I am
certain you are inhabited by greater power than I have ever known. Unfortunately, it seems to work backwards at the moment, and even I can find no way to set it right. It must be that you are meant to find your own way to reach your power in time; but frankly, you should live so long as that will take you. Therefore I grant it that you shall not age from this day forth, but will travel the world round and round, eternally inefficient, until at last you come to yourself and know what you are. Don’t thank me. I tremble at your doom." - The mighty magician Nikos to Shmendrick the magician in PeterS. Beagle's The Last Unicorn

Perhaps Schmendrick the Magician was a metaphor for humankind all along. Who knew? But, let's bumble our way back to George …

For better or worse, George was not a wild tortoise, at least for the last half of his life. Rescued from a solitary struggle for existence on goat-trampled Pinta Island where he hatched approximately 100 years ago, he spent his latter 40 years in an enclosure at the Charles DarwinResearch Station on the island of Santa Cruz

George was a big, strapping fellow weighing in at 200 pounds and measuring 5 feet in length. Nevertheless, he was an incurable loner. Much to the dismay of his 2-legged benefactors (and environmental advocates at large), George refused to contribute his genes to a new generation of hybrid Galápagos tortoises (even when enticed by an ambitious zoology student steeped in female tortoise hormones). The frenzy over impending extinction was lost on George. 

Perhaps instinct, like ignorance, is bliss.  

George's death, it seems, was unexpected and rather untimely for a tortoise. “It is a very sad story for all of us,” Santa Cruz park ranger Christian Saa told The New York Times. “We were expecting to have George another 50 years.” 

Tomorrow is promised to neither man nor tortoise, I suppose. The question is: 

Will we lose another species today?

If you'd like to read more about Lonesome George, delve into the TheLife and Loves of the World's Most Famous Tortoise.

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