Beginning September 19, 2014, thousands of visitors to the Museum had a chance to see a global icon of conservation: Lonesome George, the world-famous Pinta Island tortoise who was the last of his species when he died in 2012. The taxidermy mount, which Museum scientists helped to ensure was scientifically accurate, was displayed as part of a bilingual exhibit that underscored the importance of biodiversity stewardship. Following this exhibition, Lonesome George was returned to Ecuador as part of that country’s national patrimony.
Found in 1971, decades after his species was thought to be extinct, Lonesome George was brought to the Charles Darwin Research Station on the island of Santa Cruz. There, the tortoise became a world-famous representative of the wildlife of the Galapagos Islands and of the extinctions occurring around the world.
“From the moment he came to Santa Cruz, Lonesome George was beloved by visitors and the local community,” says Arturo Izurieta, director of the Galapagos National Park. “His story was a powerful lesson.”
At the time of Lonesome George’s death, Eleanor Sterling, then director and now chief conservation scientist of the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, was in the Galapagos for an education and outreach workshop with colleagues at the Galapagos National Park Service, the SUNY College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry, and the Galapagos Conservancy.
This group worked to carefully pack Lonesome George’s body for shipment—first to the Museum for an assessment by conservation experts, and then to Wildlife Preservations, a taxidermy studio in Woodland Park, New Jersey.
Over the next year, Wildlife Preservations taxidermists worked closely with Museum scientists to preserve Lonesome George as he appeared in life, right down to a missing toenail on his left front foot. The final mount, which showed the tremendous height Lonesome George could achieve by extending his neck, was displayed in the Museum’s Astor Turret.
Developed in collaboration with the Galapagos National Park Directorate and the Galapagos Conservancy, and presented in both English and Spanish, the exhibition was a unique opportunity to tell Lonesome George’s story to thousands of Museum visitors.
“I hope that George’s story, and his unique ability to capture the public’s attention both in life and in death, serve as a catalyst for widespread support of conservation efforts in the Galapagos and beyond,” said Sterling.
Watch the short documentary below to get a behind-the-scenes look at the preservation of Lonesome George from start to finish: