Lonesome George dies
Last year, I was awed and inspired to see Lonesome George, the last of the magnificent Pinta giant tortoises. Like many people around the world I was saddened by his death, but I think the extinction of the species, or subspecies, is far more tragic than an individual death. It’s difficult for people to separate, on an emotional level, the death of an animal and the complete extinction of a species. He was certainly very charismatic and it’s a story people can understand – his name is George, he can’t find a mate, he’s this century-old relic hanging on… But to then also think of a species no longer existing, it’s difficult to comprehend.
In recent times, I don’t think much more could have been done to protect him and save the species. They tried and failed to get George to mate and the authorities have worked really hard to restore and preserve the natural ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands. But it was far too late. It was impossible to reverse the damage that had already been done over the decades and centuries.
We can’t always be certain that a species is extinct. Conservation International recently led expeditions around the world to search for ‘lost’ frogs, many of which were presumed extinct, and discovered that, for at least a few species, some small pockets remain. So there are occasional heartwarming stories, but in this case I don’t think it would be possible for a tortoise to hide on the Galapagos Islands, which aren’t very big.
George’s death received a lot of media coverage, but extinctions happen all the time. It’s easier to have accurate numbers for larger animals because they’re much easier to find, but taking everything into account most estimates are around 25,000 species becoming extinct every year. The rate of extinction has increased enormously in recent decades and it’s expected to rise much more in the near future due to climate change. It’s a direct consequence of the impact humans are having on the planet.
The exquisite intricacy and extraordinary diversity of life that coexists with us now has taken hundreds of millions of years to evolve. Many individual species have existed for several million years or longer. Just think about that – a single species exists for ten million years, and now they’re disappearing in the blink of an eye, and it’s irreversible. For me, the fact that we’re losing that history and that complexity is the most eye-opening way to think about why we should be concerned about extinctions.
But species are also essential for our own well-being. They make up the ecosystems which support so much of what we need – food, water, regulation of diseases. There needs to be a major shift in awareness for things to improve: we’re seeing improvements but there’s still a very long way to go. When major events happen and people realise it’s more than just a bunch of biologists waving their arms and that the degradation of nature is affecting people’s quality of life in profound ways, I think that change will start to occur.
Trond Larsen is the Director of the Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) at Conservation International. RAP works around the world to protect nature and help people thrive. To donate to Conservation International, visit www.conservation.org/give.
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