Magazine article Earth Island Journal

Never Say Die

Magazine article Earth Island Journal

Never Say Die

Article excerpt

Hours after Lonesome George's death, Fausto Llerena, a ranger at the Galapagos National Park and George's long-term keeper, hauled his leathery friend's corpse into a storage freezer. The idea was to preserve George's tissue in the hopes that, one day, technology will allow scientists to clone him.

Lonesome George was the last of the Pinta tortoises (Chelonoidis abingdora), a subspecies of Galapagos giant tortoise. For decades, park rangers and conservationists had attempted to seduce the solitary giant into mating. In 1993 two females from a similar subspecies were put into his corral. He ignored them for years, and when he finally did do his duty, in 2008, the eggs failed to hatch. He also spurned the entreaties of a Swiss zoologist who smeared herself with female tortoise hormones and gave him "manual stimulation"--for four months.

Although George's failure to procreate means that his species is now extinct, conservationists are not dispirited. His skin cells have been sampled and sent to the "Frozen Zoo" in the UK, a Noah's Ark of cryopreserved cell cultures from more than 9,000 species. The idea is to use the preserved cells to generate stem cells and sex cells and then clone him.

Ten other species of Galapagos giant tortoise survive Lonesome George. As Charles Darwin noticed on his voyage in 1835, each is adapted for the specific island ecosystem in which it lives. Scientists have since learned that tortoises are an integral part of each island's ecology. …

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