Saving Other Turtles from George’s Lonesome Fate

By Jim Breheny

This summer marked the sad and untimely death of the most famous tortoise in the world, Lonesome George. When speaking of turtles and tortoises time, of course, is a relative thing. At an estimated 100 years of age, this Galapagos native was still relatively young by the standards of his genus. Nevertheless, with his demise on June 24, the Pinta Island tortoise is believed to have officially gone extinct.

George and his fellow Pinta Island tortoises fell victim to centuries of relentless exploitation and callous interference by humans into the fantastically-adapted seascape so wonderfully documented by the great naturalist Charles Darwin nearly 200 years ago. Mariners removed giant tortoises from the islands to serve as food on long voyages while introduced goats thrived in the Galapagos on the vegetation that previously sustained tortoises like George.

Burmese Star Tortoise - Myanmar - Critically Endangered - Photo by Brian D. Horne

Sadly, George’s story is not unique. The armored shells of turtles and tortoises represent one of the most uniquely adapted vertebrate body plans and have served to protect these animals since prehistoric times. But evolution’s best defense mechanisms provide little protection against humankind’s willful determination to slaughter these incredible creatures. In our modern globally-integrated economy, turtle hunting will never be a sustainable industry. Turtles neither mature fast enough nor produce enough offspring to withstand even moderate levels of continual harvesting.

For decades, Wildlife Conservation Society scientists like the late John Behler and Brian Horne have crisscrossed the globe to study rare turtles and tortoises and prevent their demise. Dr. Horne, like other experts in the field, believes that the international trade of wild-caught turtles is the main factor in driving more than half of the 330 species of turtles close to extinction. On a percentage basis, turtles as a group are now more at risk of extinction than birds, mammals, or amphibians.

Golden Coin Turtle Hatchling - China, Laos, Vietnam - Critically Endangered - Photo by Julie Larsen Maher

Far too often, we find a greater number and diversity of turtles in markets (typically stacked in crowded crates, sitting in their own filth in seedy shops and back alleyways) than we do in the wild. The rise of Internet commerce as a major market for the illicit sale of protected turtle species and the rapidly emerging economies of South and Southeast Asia are endangering the world’s turtles at an unprecedented rate.

The bulk of the world’s wild-caught turtle trade is to serve the demand in China for human consumption and their perceived medicinal benefits, and to supply the international exotic pet trade.  The scope of this trade is not measured in numbers of individuals but in tons of live turtles that are collected and sold on a daily basis. During a three-day survey of southern Chinese markets in late 2011, WCS was able to document that the species for sale represented over a third of the world’s turtle diversity. Confronted by the magnitude of the trade, it is hard to imagine there can be a single turtle or tortoise left in the wild at current rates of exploitation.

Red-Crowned Roofed Turtle - Bangladesh, India, Nepal - Critically Endangered - Photo by Brian D. Horne

The impact of these markets is truly global, as we found turtles from every continent where they occur and many that are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the highest level of trade protection, regulating commercial trade of a species. Loopholes in laws and failures in enforcement facilitate the trade of huge numbers of these critically endangered species.

In 2011, the Turtle Conservation Coalition identified the 25 most endangered turtles, two-thirds of these being found only in Asia and heavily impacted by trade in and to China. Most of these rarest species are estimated to have fewer than 1,000 animals remaining in the wild, with some species able to be counted in the tens or single digits.  However, WCS believes that turtle species can be saved from extinction through field conservation efforts and captive breeding.

With the goal of preserving wild turtle populations and preventing further extinctions, we have made an institutional commitment to reduce the illegal trade in these animals. As a part of this effort, we will work to ensure that there are adequate protected areas for maintaining self-sustaining populations of the world’s most endangered turtles.

Roti Island Snake-Necked Turtle - Indonesia, Timor-Leste - Critically Endangered - Photo by Julie Larsen Maher

With our partners the Turtle Survival Alliance, the Turtle Conservancy, and the Asian Turtle Program, we are also developing captive breeding projects both within the US and abroad. The end goal of these breeding programs is to be able to return offspring of these assurance colonies into the wild.

For turtle species numbering in the hundreds or less, we may only have a few years before we lose these marvels of evolution forever.  We have the ability to make a difference, and we have the ethical responsibility to respond.  We must act now to ensure that future generations have the opportunity to spot a turtle in the wild and that no species finds itself — like George — reduced by human greed or mismanagement to one last, lonesome representative.


Jim Breheny is Executive Vice President & General Director for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Zoos and Aquarium and Jonathan Little Cohen Director of the Bronx Zoo.

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.
  • Alyssa

    This is so tragic. I wish I could do something to help. 🙁 Turtles are my favorite animal, I’m pretty much obsessed with them but I don’t own any because I think its wrong.

  • Elliot

    I can’t believe in this modern day and age people are still selling AND buying endangered animals. What kind of monster would eat a beautiful, critically endangered turtle? The people that work in this trade are absolute savages. I’m sorry, but I think that people that do this deserve nothing better than death. I want to cry for this backwards, bitter Earth.

  • Barbara Gondick

    This earth is not necessarily backwards but it is bitter and that is because Satan is in charge of ruining everything here as much as possible and that is a LOT!!! One of these days the turtles that we all love so much will be able to once again roam this earth in freedom without the interference of man or anything else. I know this sounds like a religious conference or what ever? But it is true and you will know for sure one of these days that I am not the nut that you may think I am by reading what I have written in this post, You just watch. ! I guarantee it!!! :O)

  • Stephen

    I do not think it is wrong to own a turtle. I think it it ethical to own captive bred turtles assuming they are well taken care of and have dedicated owners. Turtles do make amazing pets. Captive breeding by hobbyists may very well be the reason some species are saved. Turtles should never be eaten, they are way to neat.

  • Kanwaldeep K. Sekhon

    I agree with Stephen that if the owners are responsible and take good care of the turtle, its not wrong to own one. Its wrong to eat them. Then again, I’m a hard core vegetarian and I don’t eat anything that once had eyes and was able to move of its own free will. Its terrible that this is happening and of course its in places where the environmental laws are simply laughable. The last thing on the mind-sets of these governments is stopping illegal trade. They’re too focused on their economies to care and it sucks!!!!

  • Paul

    I agree with Steven: “Turtles should not be eaten”. Just like all the animal life on this beautiful planet, they are ‘way too neat’ to be exploited. We have not evolved since those mariners did their damage so long ago. Still plundering the world’s resources without let. Top of the food chain, my arse..

  • gorges

    il ne faut pas capturait les tortues , il faut les laissait dans leur nature les laissait tranquille, merci

  • Victor Feodorov

    Is there a site where we can take action.

    Victor Michael Feodorov

  • Paula

    Sadly, with 7 billion people on earth, the continued orientation toward meat as a source of protein is destroying both animals necessary for the health of the planet and people ignorant of their true benefit. We must support programs that educate about the benefit of a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet, as well as support community gardens.

  • Janet Borelli

    Turtles are truly in a precarious situation. Is there anything I can do to help?

  • Loba Moon

    Turtles should not be dinner, also when Turtles are migrating across roads they shout be protected. I saw thousands of Turtles squashed by cars in New York near Niagara Falls, people didn’t even show down, stop, the just ran them over. What is wrong with us? Empathy needed desperately!

  • Deb Fahey

    There should be strong laws and stronger punishments for killing these amazing creatures. All animals have as much right to have a long and productive life as we humans do. I believe in an eye for an eye.

  • Deb Fahey

    There should be strong laws and stronger punishments for killing these amazing creatures. All animals have as much right to a long and productive as we humans.

  • Paula J Nichols

    We need to do all we can to protect endangered animals!

  • William Lee Kohler

    I’ve been a friend of Galapagos for several years and this past year we found WONDERFUL news! After genetic testing of 1669 tortoises from one volcano on Albemarle Is. it was found that there were 17 tortoises with genes from Georges island as well as 84 from the Charles Is. tortoises thought to be extinct for 150 years. Some of these are 50% hybrids leaving the possibility that there may still be some purebred parents alive there. There are still possibly 80% of the tortoises from this volcano yet to be found and tested which is to be done in the next few years. More info can be found at Galapagos.Org or Galapagos Conservancy as well as an internet search for the specific tortoises themselves. If you want to contact me for more I don’t mind. New members and supporters are always welcome.

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  • Zauberkünstler

    truly excellent issues here, just thanks

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