On the day that Lonesome George died, in June 2012, Eleanor Sterling made a panicked phone call. “George!” she recalls saying. “What do we do now?”
Lonesome George was a tortoise—the most famous one ever, in fact. Decades after the last giant tortoise was thought to have disappeared from the island of Pinta in the Galapagos, Lonesome George turned up in 1971 and became a conservation icon. Scientists spent years trying to get him to mate, to pass on his genes, but the efforts failed. When he died, his entire subspecies may have died with him.
“I knew we needed to do something right away” to preserve Lonesome George’s body, says Sterling. Luckily, as a conservation scientist at the American Museum Of Natural History (AMNH), she knew to call another George—specifically, George Dante, a taxidermist for a company called Wildlife Preservations, who has worked with the museum before. He sent Sterling a list of instructions on how to prevent the tortoise’s body from decomposing so that it could be taxidermied.
Somewhere else, there might have been a decision made to just put him in alcohol–to make a wet specimen that would be in a museum collection, never to be seen again. Now we have this monument for conservation that visitors can look at and make a connection with.
Lonesome George is on display at the AMNH in New York until January, when he’ll be returned to Ecuador.