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Originally published Saturday, July 6, 2013 at 6:12 AM

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Giant tortoise to be preserved for posterity

Lonesome George, the giant Galápagos tortoise whose death a year ago signified the extinction of his subspecies, was defrosted in recent weeks as taxidermists began preparing him for posterity.

The New York Times

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WOODLAND PARK, N.J. — Lonesome George, the giant Galápagos tortoise whose death a year ago signified the extinction of his subspecies, is taking on a new life — as an in-the-flesh reminder of what has been lost in the natural world.

George, who had been kept in the deep freeze since he died, was defrosted in recent weeks at a studio here where taxidermists began preparing him for posterity, dunking his bony head and leathery feet into tubs of gel to make molds for later reference.

He will be preserved in a typical pose chosen by those who knew him, and he’ll be exhibited next winter at the American Museum of Natural History before being shipped back to the Galápagos Islands for permanent display at the research station where he had lived for four decades.

“What George is as a symbol shouldn’t be forgotten,” said Linda Cayot, the science adviser to the Galápagos Conservancy, who knew and worked with him for years. “And the best way of doing that is having him there in front of everyone.”

Johannah Barry, the conservancy’s founder and president, said, “George was a reminder of what we as a species are capable of doing out of ignorance.”

The unusual project, which Barry said cost “$30,000 and counting,” is a partnership involving the conservancy, the museum, the Galápagos National Park in Ecuador and the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. Edwin Naula, the director of the national park, said officials there had received many proposals for preserving Lonesome George, whose death, apparently from natural causes, hit Galápagos residents especially hard. “This was the best option, with the best technical and scientific people,” he said.

Wrapped to prevent freezer burn and further protected with pink fiberglass insulation, George arrived at the museum this spring in a gray shipping crate. He was kept frozen and trucked to the studio, Wildlife Preservations.

After he was thawed — which took less than 24 hours because his internal organs had been removed during a necropsy, leaving a largely empty shell — the taxidermists took measurements using a cloth tape and calipers. (George’s neck is only a size 14.5, though it is at least 2 feet long.)

“He’s a really great-looking tortoise,” said George Dante, the owner of the studio, gently patting George on the head. Dante will use the original shell — restoring it where the top and bottom had been cut apart with a chain saw for the necropsy — and will sculpture a mannequin for the limbs and neck, which he will sew the tanned skin around. The plan is to have George on his feet with his neck raised, as if on the lookout for his staple food, cactus.

Long before his death, Lonesome George had become an icon for conservation-minded adults and schoolchildren around the world as the last surviving member of the Pinta Island subspecies. For thousands of ecotourists, a glimpse of the tortoise — all 5 feet and 200 pounds of him — in his paddock on Santa Cruz Island was a highlight of their Galápagos trip.

Like other Galápagos tortoises, Pintas had been extensively collected for food by whalers and other seafarers in the 19th century, and the island’s vegetation had been ravaged by wild goats introduced in the 1950s.

Pintas had been thought to be extinct when George was discovered in 1971, and efforts to pass on some of his genes by breeding him were unsuccessful. (Last year, researchers who did DNA testing of tortoises on a remote part of another island found 17 that contained some Pinta genes, raising the possibility, yet unproved, that a full-blooded Pinta may still be alive there.)

James Gibbs, a professor at the SUNY environmental college, who accompanied the frozen body from Ecuador to New York, said that George was more fearful and shy than some tortoises. “I expect he was probably fairly solitary before he was found,” he said.

“He was a very complicated tortoise,” he added.

George’s death was unexpected, as he was not known to be in ill health and he was thought to be only about 100 years old (giant tortoises can live twice that long).

Gibbs, Cayot, Barry and Eleanor Sterling, director of the museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, all happened to be in the Galápagos when George died. To prepare him for freezing, they swaddled him in wet cloths and cotton, even going so far as to place bits of cloth between and underneath his stubby claws. “I felt like I was learning to be a manicurist,” Sterling said.

He was in good shape after being defrosted, with a few minor nicks on his skin and shell (more significant damage, the loss of a middle claw on one foot, occurred in life and will be left as is). But there was something sad about him, knowing what he had been through in his life.

“Poor old chap,” Dante said. “You feel for him. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t.”

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