Travel

Conservation icon returns to Darwin Research Station

Lonesome George, the taxidermied giant tortoise
Karen Campbell for The Globe
Lonesome George, the taxidermied giant tortoise

SANTA CRUZ ISLAND, Galapagos Islands — Lonesome George is back — in a manner of speaking — and the folks at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Galapagos island of Santa Cruz couldn’t be happier. People around the world wept five years ago when word spread that the giant Pinta Island tortoise, the very last of his species and more than 100 years old, had died. An icon for conservation, he had been found as the sole survivor on the tiny Galapagos island after his natural habitat was destroyed by goats imported by fisherman. The giant tortoise was rescued and brought to the station’s Santa Cruz breeding center in 1971. But though he’d impregnated several females of different subspecies over the years, none of the eggs had produced live hatchlings, thus his poignant name.

But in March, a meticulously preserved Lonesome George returned to the center. Taxidermied in the United States while a brand-new climate-controled showcase was prepared for him, the tortoise is now on display in his full glory — long neck, massive shell, stubby feet, and all. Just behind the showcase, windows allow views of outside corrals, where some of the other tortoises currently in the breeding program amble about.

As impressive as Lonesome George is, he’s far from the only draw at the station, which offers a terrific introduction to the remarkable biodiversity of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. Sitting amid the convergence of three major ocean currents, the archipelago of volcanic islands support more than 100 indigenous vertebrates, including the famed tortoises, three types of boobies, marine and land iguanas, and 17 varieties of finches, which have helped support the theory of evolution by natural selection that Darwin developed following his research in the Galapagos. The Charles Darwin Foundation was established in 1959 to safeguard the Galapagos Islands’ unique natural resources through research, breeding, promoting sustainability, and educating the public, and the internationally renowned research station in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz opened in 1964.

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Arturo Izurieta, who has led the foundation for more than 30 years, calls the Galapagos Islands a “natural laboratory,” which has generated partnerships with scientists and organizations from around the world.

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The station’s main building was transformed last year into a gleaming Exhibition Hall offering visitors a terrific introduction to what they might encounter in the Galapagos Islands. An impressive skeleton of a Bryde’s whale greets visitors as they walk in the door, and a short video, which plays on a loop, and hand-painted wall panel maps and displays highlight the center’s history and conservation efforts, which include addressing the top threat to the islands’ delicate ecosystems — invasive species.

Outside, the walking loop leads visitors around the breeding center, where you can see the full range of giant tortoises, from massive, ancient veterans (which can weigh more than 500 pounds) to youngsters smaller than a saucer.

But the memory that lingers most vividly is that of Lonesome George, and the cautionary message he represents. During his lifetime, an information panel near his pen read, “Let him always remind us the fate of all living things on Earth is in human hands.”

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.