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Lonesome George – Henry Nicholls ****

Pinta Island in the Galapagos has a particularly famous inhabitant – the giant tortoise, Lonesome George, the only known survivor of the Pinta variant of that species. (Technically he isn’t an inhabitant, as he has been moved to a sanctuary on another part of the archipelago, but Pinta is where he came from. PS Also even more technically now George has sadly died.) George inevitably features regularly in the press, thanks to the combination of being a striking animal, a Darwinian icon and a very isolated creature, but does he warrant a whole book?
In a word, yes. Henry Nicholls cleverly makes George a central focus that he keeps returning to, but is able to use the tortoise as a springboard to examine everything from Darwin’s voyages to threats to the Galapagos from incoming, non-native wildlife, eco-tourists and the action of illegal sea cucumber fishers (who have threatened to kidnap George, or worse, in the past).
Some might find the description of the attempt to get George interested in the opposite sex from nearby islands (a lack of interest that seems largely due to lack of practice) a little too detailed, but it too is entertainingly told, bringing in some of the human characters involved along the way. It’s not all about George’s inclinations, though. As well as giving serious consideration to cloning, Nicholls looks at the possibility there might be another Pinta variant out there in the collections of giant tortoises around the world (these are long-lived beasts, and one may have been taken before their scarcity was noted), at various attempts to track down another tortoise on Pinta itself (it’s difficult to be absolutely sure something isn’t there), and at the state of the other sub-species of Galapagos giant tortoise.
There is one aspect of the story that seems underplayed in the book. The only reason George is a celebrity is that he is a one-off – the only representative of the Pinta version of the Galapagos tortoise. But he is quite similar to the tortoises on one of the other islands, and it is known that tortoises have travelled between islands in the past. Could George just be a reptilian island hopper, and not a true Pinta tortoise at all? If this were the case he would just be one of many – no more special than any of the other Galapagos tortoises, rather than the tourist attraction he is today.
There have been two tests, comparing George’s DNA with the skin samples of three tortoises killed on Pinta in 1906. One test found that George didn’t match, one found George did. Nicholls’ conclusion “On balance it looks like Lonesome George fully deserves his hard-earned celebrity status,” sounds more like wishful thinking than a scientific conclusion. When two tests come up with opposite results, you don’t pick the result you want, you do a whole series of tests, reproduced in different labs – this hasn’t been done, so George’s status has to remain in doubt. This doesn’t stop him making a good story, though.
Nicholls gives us a good balance of George himself, the natural and political history of the Galapagos and the inevitable Darwinian connections. It’s a warmly enjoyable book – a pleasure to read.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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