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The Plight of the Turtle
Mona Chiang 


Tough-bodied bachelor — 102 cm long, weight 88 kgs — seeks vegetarian lady to keep bloodline going. Enjoys sleeping, eating, and lounging in pool.

Lonesome George is desperate for a mate. He's one of the 14 subspecies of giant tortoises indigenous (native) to the Galápagos Islands west of Ecuador. Three subspecies have already gone extinct. George, the sole representative of his kind, could be next.

Over 250,000 tortoises once roamed these islands. "They were everywhere," says herpetologist Cruz Marquez of the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS). But in the 19th century, tortoise populations tumbled when sailors on whale hunts captured shiploads for food. Then, fishermen and farmers in the 1950s introduced goats to the islands to serve as an alternative food source. As the goat population boomed, they beat out tortoises for vegetation. Today, about 50,000 tortoises remain — all endangered species.

When scientists combed Pinta Island in 1971, they found George alone. Today, the bachelor shares a stonewalled corral with two female tortoises from Isabela Island at the CDRS. The station runs a tortoise captive-breeding program on Santa Cruz Island. Scientists hoped George would pass on his genes via these closely related females. "He chases them," says Ros Cameron of the CDRS. While some mating has occurred, no eggs have been produced.

Why? Theories abound, from sexual dysfunction to genetic differences. Zoos have been combed to find a closer match for George, but no daters seem available. Cloning has been proposed, but the technology is deemed too premature. Could scientists have missed spotting a female on George's native island? They hope so. While the CDRS has successfully released more than 3,000 captive-bred tortoises back to their home islands, George is still lonesome.

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