Kindly contributed by Henry Nicholls, author of several books on conservation.
Nicholls relates the rich and curious history of the giant panda, from its scientific discovery in 1869 to potent symbol of conservation, in his book The Way of the Panda. In Lonesome George, he shows the marvels of evolution, the nature of the Galapagos Islands and the challenges of conservation through the tale of a single species, in this case the lone tortoise from the Island of Pinta. In his most recent book, The Galapagos: A Natural History, Nicholls expands his study of the Galapagos, charting the human and natural history of the archipelago from its fiery origins through famous visitors and current conservation challenges.
In the Galapagos, there are around 70 dedicated visitor sites, neat trails that weave through this extraordinary landscape. All of them are remarkable, in their own winding way, and might easily qualify as my favourite place in the Galapagos. Yet, it is the vast majority of Galapagos I can never see that gets me most excited. It is the 97% of the land mass that is out-of-bounds to visitors and the huge marine protected area around these islands that makes them so special. My favorite Galapagos place I will never see is the northerly island of Pinta, or Lonesome George’s island. If you have not heard of Lonesome George, where have you been? He is a giant tortoise, discovered on Pinta in 1971, brought to the central island of Santa Cruz in 1972, where he lived in captivity until his death in 2012. In that time, he became famous as the sole-surviving member of his species, “the world’s rarest living creature” and a conservation icon.
Lonesome George was the subject of my first book, a precious reptilian muse who helped me navigate the challenges of conservation in the Galapagos and beyond. I have delved into the diaries of dozens of pirates and whalers (who visited Pinta to kill its giant tortoises for food), I have talked to scientists and conservationists who have been there and I have learned of bold efforts to restore this island to something of its former glory. Pinta, for me, is a symbol of both destruction and restoration. Its story reveals the turbulent human history, the troubled present and the uncertain future of the Galapagos. Yet it has no visitor site. As much as I would love to climb its volcano and contemplate, first-hand, life on George’s island, I can’t and I never will. But that is how it should be. Places like Pinta give me hope that we can contain the influence of humans on the natural history of this archipelago. I love these places because I cannot visit.
The Galapagos is truly unique. Scientists recognise around 4,000 species in the islands. This is not many, yet almost half of them are unique to the islands, made in the Galapagos, a product of the splendid isolation this archipelago has enjoyed for millions of years. Today, the pressures on the Galapagos are immense, notably the presence of some 30,000 residents and over 200,000 visitors every year. Yet so much of the Galapagos benefits from serious protection and as long as there are wild, relatively untouched places like Pinta, I will have hope.