In 2012, Solitario Jorge (Lonesome George), the last known Pinta Island tortoise and an important symbol of conservation for the Galápagos islands, died in captivity. Repeated attempts at mating Jorge with closely related tortoise species had failed, and after his death he was taxidermied and placed on exhibit in the Galápagos National Park. An article in the National Geographic memorialises, “If there's a giant tortoise heaven, Solitario Jorge is lonesome no more”.
While extensive resources were poured into conserving Jorge, back on Pinta Island 20,000 goats were killed by hunters beginning in the 1970s in the world’s largest mammal eradication campaign. A local resident commented, “It wasn’t pretty, what shall I say? The way a lot of goats died wasn’t clean…They wanted to protect the Galápagos, I get that. But it looked like someone bombed the islands!” Introduced to the island by pirates in the 1600s, the goats had thrived in their new habitat and munched away at local vegetation until there was none left for endemic tortoises like Jorge.
Wildlife conservation is sticky work; it's rarely clear cut or easy. The conservation industry must make decisions about where to allocate limited resources, in essence deciding which animals will be conserved and which will not, though the latter is rarely publicised. In certain circumstances, who dies – who misses out on the conservation interventions that may stave off extinction – turns into who needs to die. In this age of extinction, of both species and natural resources, we need to consider the defensibility of this deathly mathematics: twenty thousand goats for tortoise conservation. We should meditate on the lives and deaths surrounding the endling, the last known member of a species, and what lessons we may take towards the work of conservation.
Extinction and Endlings
The scale of the sixth mass extinction is a difficult idea to conceptualise. As we learn more about the immense diversity of life on Earth, we also learn more about the immense loss of life that is constantly occurring alongside and because of us. This loss is personalised in the image of the lone endling, a term coined by Robert Webster and Bruce Erickson in a 1996 Nature correspondence to describe “the last person surviving or deceased in a family line, or the last survivor of a species”. Museum curator Mike Smith revived the term in an exhibit on the thylacine (better known as the Tasmanian tiger), and since then the endling has entered popular culture and media.
A video of the last known thylacine who died in 1936 at Hobart Zoo.
The endling is simultaneously expansive enough to represent the extinction of an entire species, but personal enough to depict the individual: both the entire troubled history of the Pinta Island tortoises, and also Jorge himself. Derrida describes the act of naming as “a foreshadowing of mourning”. By naming the last Pinta island tortoise Solitario Jorge, the conservationists ensured that the singularity and the tragedy of Jorge's species cannot be ignored.
What responsibilities do we have to an endling? What does it mean to care for an endling?
Jorge at the breeding centre
Thought to be extinct, Solitario Jorge was first spotted on Pinta Island in 1971 by Hungarian scientist, József Vágvölgyi. Jorge was transported to the Charles Darwin Research Centre (CDRC) in 1972, where he spent the rest of his life. As the last of his species, his health was continuously monitored. When he fell in 1980, rumours of his death--and thus, the death of his species--spread. When he was deemed overweight, he was put on a strict diet. All aspects of Solitario Jorge’s life were controlled and observed to make him, and his species, live.
Try as they might, however, conservationists were not able to make Solitario Jorge reproduce. Under conservation logic, it was not enough that Solitario Jorge had adequate space, food, and shelter. For Jorge to truly live a good life, he had to reproduce. He had to cease to be an endling.
He was placed in a corral with two female tortoises from a related species on Isabela Island but failed to mate. Eventually, the conservationists switched techniques and attempted to artificially inseminate the females instead using Jorge’s sperm. If Jorge would not mate on his own accord, the conservationists had to find another way for the benefit of Jorge and his species. However, getting Jorge’s sperm proved to be an impossible task. Depictions of these attempts by 26-year-old graduate student Sveva Grigioni vary in wording from the direct “By coating her hands in the genital secretions of female tortoises and gently stroking him, she managed to demonstrate a couple of times (in the course of several months’ work) that George was capable of an erection” to the more explicit “[She] took on the project of fondling him for three months, two hours at a time, in hopes of producing semen” to the more euphemistic “[She] nobly contributed to the effort by attempting to manually stimulate George”. There is an uneasiness to this part of Jorge’s story; though this work is the logical conclusion to these conservation efforts, the image of Sveva Grigioni’s task is an uncomfortable reminder that there are things outside human control, even if matters are literally taken into our own hands. Is this work done for Jorge, for his species, or for the sake of our own consciences?
When Jorge finally succeeded in mating, 16 years after his first attempt, it was of his own volition. The clutch of eggs never hatched.
After Jorge died, he was genetically tested, autopsied, taxidermied, and placed at the CDRC. In a glass case, he is “a solitary and sterile form, largely disconnected from its ancestral significations, and without reference to the post-mortem processes that make up the story of his death and preservation”. In this final depiction of Jorge, many things are invisible: the spaces he called home, the humans and nonhuman animals that kept him company, and the scientists who worked diligently to make him live. The endling remains alone, even in death.
The taxidermied Solitario Jorge
There is an incredibly seductive power that comes with the idea of saving a species from the brink of extinction. It is an obsession that hints at the paternalistic, Western gaze, and colonial histories that still shape conservation as a concept. The opportunity—no, impetus—to right the wrongs of humanity and make the innocent live is difficult to ignore. Outside Jorge's enclosure, it is inscribed: Whatever happens to this single animal, let him always remind us that the fate of all living things on Earth is in human hands. (That is, unless he refuses to mate.)
Making Space for Endlings
But what of the lives that surround the endling? What happened to the 20,000 goats that also lived on the Galápagos islands?
Project Isabela, named after the largest Galápagos island, was an environmental restoration project that aimed to tackle the issue of the goats who had been left behind by explorers, merchants, and whalers exploring the Galápagos in the 16th and 17th centuries. Over time, their population grew to around 250,000 goats, which consequently ate all the vegetation that made up the diet of the tortoises. Project Isabela began with a ground hunt, then moved to sharpshooters and helicopter pilots who would herd the goats and shoot them from the sky. To kill the remaining population, they employed ‘Judas goats’, which were female goats who were tagged, then released onto the islands and tracked. As the ‘Judas’ found others of her species, gunmen would follow and kill her companions, leaving her alive to repeat the process. In 2006, the islands were declared goat-free, pig-free, and donkey-free. These invasive species were exterminated, allowing native species to thrive; a grim upending of Darwin’s natural selection. As the Galápagos Conservancy happily reports, “small trees began regenerating…endemic species increased in numbers”. However, there were also unforeseen consequences. Project Isabela also led to “the expansion of introduced blackberry thickets throughout large portions of the highlands.” So, whilst one problem is now ‘solved’, another is unearthed. We are told that “studies of methods to control this invasive species are ongoing.”
The remains of a goat in the Galápagos islands. (Source)
What responsibilities do we have to these goats? What does it mean to care for these goats?
Bocci places Project Isabela in a continuum of care, with the care for the tortoise at one end and the fatal care of the goats at the other. Project Isabela is described as an environmental restoration project, but who decides what restoration looks like? Who decides who is cared for and who is taken care of? Who decides how we address history?
In this case, the giant Galápagos tortoises, the “ancient standard-bearers of biodiversity," are important because of their key role in Charles Darwin’s development of the theory of evolution. Furthermore, they are big, they are old, and they were hunted by humans to extinction. The goats, however, are ‘just goats’. They were abandoned on the islands and they thrived too well.
Conservation is a series of paradoxes and a series of decisions. While there are a vast amount of factors outside our control, it is true that certain humans have a great deal of control regarding the fate of living things.
For endlings: what happens to the less charismatic, less culturally impactful endlings? What of the vegetal endlings? What does it mean for an endling to have a good life? What happens when the endling dies?
For those deemed invasive: what does it mean for them to have a good life? Does it matter, or matter as much? How do we mourn 20,000 goats?
And finally, what is a good death? And what are the other ways to respond to extinction beyond conservation?
It is important to recognize that conservation in its current form is simply one way of responding to the extinction crisis. By delving into the story of Jorge and the goats, we see two polar extremes: the obsessive care of the endling and the fatal care of the goat. In its failure to save Solatario Jorge, we are forced to consider if there are viable alternatives, or if living a good life could mean something other than this obsessive focus on reproduction. As we learn more and more about the destructive capabilities of human activity guided by histories of colonialism and capitalism, we must be careful to not reproduce the same hubristic belief that we can dominate or control the natural world.
After the goats were killed, a handful were eaten, while the rest were left to rot, so “the valuable nutrients the goats consumed on the island could return back to the soil.” All the while, Solatario Jorge looks on, alone, from his glass case on Puerto Ayora, 156 km away from where he was born. Could their story have ended another way?
Lauren Chang is a researcher interested in the more-than-human. She is currently based in Nairobi, Kenya.