In 1906 the world thought it had seen its last Pinta Island tortoise. That year, the California Academy of Sciences led an expedition that yielded a total of three males, after which the search for the long-necked, leather-skinned species went cold.
Fast forward to December of 1971, when a Hungarian scientist in search of snails spotted a Pinta Island tortoise, instead. Upon the tortoise’s capture and relocation, we bestowed him with a name (Lonesome George) and made him a modern “poster child” for extinction. Here he was, living proof (at least for awhile) that there is such a thing as a last representative of a species.
We have a name for them, “endlings” – a fraternity with far too many members as it is. Martha the Passenger Pigeon was a member (1914), as was Benjamin the Tasmanian tiger (1936), and Celia the Pyrenean ibex (2000). But we remember Lonesome George not only because he was the “last” but because he was just here, dying in the early morning of June 24, 2012.
The cause of death: heart failure.
Which admittedly, provides my heart some relief, particularly given the frequency in which we humans are the cause. Though Lonesome George’s heart failure is merely what scientists call a “proximate cause” of his species’ extinction. Had my son stepped on the last grasshopper, his step would have served as a proximate cause, too. In both of these examples, no single incident is responsible for the extinction of the species on the whole. Extinction is always more complicated than a heart attack or a stomped shoe, and to understand it fully, we must consider also the “ultimate causes” that precipitate a species’ demise.
In the case of the Pinta Island tortoise, I’m afraid we humans have a bit of blood on our hands after all. Or at least 17th century humans do, namely those who killed 200,000 or so for meat, thereby dramatically diminishing the tortoises’ total population. Add an abundance of habitat-damaging feral goats into the mix, and those remaining tortoises never stood a chance.
Except for Lonesome George, who persisted for 102-years.
What did he do with himself? I wonder. How did he pass the time?
And equally baffling: How does a creature that sleeps 16-hours a day – well, I guess that’s how he passed the time – go undetected for over half a century?
Had no human ever stumbled upon that snoozing behemoth anywhere on Pinta Island? Had nobody spotted a shell-like rock that was actually a rock-like shell?
Of course, it’s hard to spot a creature that so often changes form, though less so when the “changes” are a result of our perception. Born a tortoise, Lonesome George soon became our symbol, and then, our spectacle, too.
I’ll concede that I am at least a little complicit in encouraging this latter transformation. But who doesn’t want to see the last of a species? To catch a glimpse when the glimpsing is good? To snap a selfie, post a picture, snag a souvenir?
When face-to-face with the last of any creature, doesn’t some small part of us hope to be the last face it sees? Isn’t that the story we most want to tell our grandchildren? Not that we saved the last, but that we saw it last, and to trust us when we say it was beautiful.
B.J. Hollars is the evil genius behind the Chippewa Valley Writer’s Guild. He teaches English at UW-Eau Claire. This essay is excerpted from “A Field Guide to Extinction” and previously appeared in 45th Parallel. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.