Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Monday 25 June 2012


Lonesome George (Cryptomundo)

It is rare indeed for the precise date of extinction of a species or subspecies to be known, but there are a few notable examples.

On 3 July 1844, the last two confirmed specimens of the great auk Pinguinus impennis were clubbed to death and their single egg smashed (on the isle of Eldey, off Iceland). 1 September 1914 marked the death of the world's last known passenger pigeon Ectopistes migratorius (in Cincinnati Zoo). 21 February 1918 saw the death of the last verified Carolina parakeet Conuropsis carolinensis (also, remarkably, in Cincinnati Zoo). And on 7 September 1936 the last confirmed specimen of the Tasmanian wolf Thylacinus cynocephalus died (in Hobart Zoo).

Now, tragically, we can add another black day to that list - 24 June 2012, the day when Lonesome George, the world's only known surviving Pinta (=Abingdon) Island giant tortoise Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni, died. He was approximately 100 years old, and, with ironic inevitability, he was alone when death finally released him from decades of isolation from any other member of his subspecies.

Lonesome George's biography

Here, as a tribute to Lonesome George, is my documentation of his sad story and that of his entire race, which appeared in my recently-published book, The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals (2012):

The South American Galapagos archipelago is named after its giant tortoise Chelonoidis nigra (formerly known as Geochelone elephantopus); 'galapagar' is Spanish for 'a place where tortoises thrive'. An imposing sight, weighing in at a hefty 330-440 lb, and with a burly carapace (shell) at least 3.5 ft long, it once existed on no fewer than 11 of the islands, and occurred in so great a variety of shell shapes that it was once split into at least 15 different species. On some islands, its carapace was domed (as in smaller tortoises), on others it was flattened like a saddle. The largest island, Albemarle (also called Isabella), had five species, and ten other islands each had one; but nowadays these are all treated merely as distinctive subspecies of a single species.

19th-Century engraving of Abingdon (Pinta) Island giant tortoises

Regardless of their shell shapes, however, all of the islands' giant tortoises were united by at least one shared feature - a feature that proved to be their undoing. Their flesh was extremely tasty - prompting their slaughter en masse during the early 1800s by visiting sailors, whalers, and other seafarers, until several subspecies were exterminated.

One of the most distinctive was the saddle-shelled form on Abingdon (Pinta) Island, C. n. abingdoni, whose carapace was unusually thin. By the 20th century's opening years, its population had virtually disappeared, and during scientific expeditions to Abingdon in the 1930s and 1950s not a single specimen was observed (though it is now known that local fishermen found and slaughtered some for meat in the early 1950s). To make matters even worse, goats were introduced onto the island from 1954 onwards, whose insatiable appetites soon converted its all-too-small covering of foliage into an arid wilderness. Not surprisingly, the Abingdon Island giant tortoise was written off as extinct, but in 1964 no fewer than 28 dead specimens were discovered there. They appeared to have died about five years before, which meant that they must have been alive, but concealed, during the earlier searches. Even so, 28 dead specimens could hardly resurrect their subspecies from extinction.

An Abingdon (Pinta) Island giant tortoise exhibited at London Zoo in 1914

Nevertheless, it was resurrected in March 1972, for this was when - to the astonishment of herpetologists everywhere - a living specimen was encountered on Abingdon. Furthermore, tracks indicating the presence of others were also sighted. The live tortoise, a male (later christened Lonesome George), was swiftly transferred to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz for security. Still alive today (August 2011), George is believed to be 60-90 years old and in good health, but attempts to mate him with females of other Galapagos subspecies in order to preserve his genes in future generations of hybrids has so far proven unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, no other living pure-bred Abingdon giant tortoise has been found on Abingdon since the discovery there of George. Nor have any been confirmed existing in any zoo or private collection (although as first publicised in 2006, there is a possible pure-bred adult male, Tony, living at a Prague zoo, whose taxonomic identity is now under close investigation). However, in view of the tracks observed, it seems remotely feasible that specimens do still survive on Abingdon - a possibility reinforced in 1981 by the discovery on this island of some tortoise faecal droppings that appeared to be no more than a few years old. To encourage searches, a reward of $10,000 is being offered by the Charles Darwin Research Station to anyone who successfully discovers a living female Abingdon Island giant tortoise.

Sadly, any such find will now be too late for Lonesome George. However, it would resurrect his subspecies from extinction, so for that reason alone, the search must continue, in the memory of the Pinta Island giant tortoise's most prominent and poignant ambassador.

Lonesome George (Putneymark/Wikipedia)


  1. Thanks, Karl, this is a wonderful tribute to a fine individual and subspecies! I have David Nicholls' book with me today and am rereading it - a great read and highly recommended! Apparently, the remains of a second, younger tortoise were found around the same time, slaughtered by a poacher. Also recommended is Paul Chamber's "A Sheltered Life" which covers the Indian Ocean giant tortoises (now mostly also extinct) as well.

  2. Thanks very much for your kind comment, Ian, and also for your most interesting, additional information, which is very welcome. All the best, Karl