As you may or may not know, the 24th of June 2012 saw the death of Lonesome George. George was the last surviving Pinta Island Tortoise, a subspecies of the Galapagos Tortoise (the world’s largest). The extinction of the rest of the Pinta Island Tortoise population was due to the award-winning combination of habitat destruction by an introduced species – in this case the Goat – and hunting. Obviously the passing of George is sad news, but what’s even sadder is that it’s not unique- only this time the final survivor had a name and we knew the exact extinction date. It’s not even the only subspecies of a major species to become extinct recently- only last year the Western Black Rhino was officially declared extinct. Obviously, due to the nature of evolution, species and subspecies come and go all the time. When they disappear because of Man, then that’s a travesty. I know there’s a school of thought that says Man is one of nature’s creations, therefore everything we do is natural, including pollution, farming, war- everything. It may come as no surprise to you to discover that I consider this “theory” to be nothing more than lazy thinking- an attempt to escape responsibility for all the needless crimes committed by us. The sort of statement usually accompanied by a look that says “HAH! Get out of that one” by someone who isn’t interested in the subject and wants to look “intelligent”, but it doesn’t hold up very long as an argument. We have tried at every available opportunity to take ourselves out of the Animal Kingdom and prove us to be better than them. Now, I don’t agree with this either, but surely we can’t try to take ourselves away from the influences of nature (we artificially create the things we need to survive like clothes as we wouldn’t survive a winter without them, we adapt our surroundings in order to suit our needs or wants, and we remove anything that could in anyway harm us, very often creating something to do so as we can’t do it ourselves), yet we still claim that the things we do are natural!
So why should we care about the extinction of what is, after all, only a subspecies? The quick answer is there is no such thing as “only” a subspecies. A simple definition of a subspecies is a group within a species that displays behavioural or physical changes sufficiently different to the norm to make scientists believe that it is heading down the evolutionary path to becoming a separate species. There are many subspecies in the world. In Britain the Red Grouse, Pied Wagtail, Shetland Wren, Fair Isle Wren, St Kilda Wren, Dipper, Irish Hare, Scottish Wildcat, St Kilda Field Mouse, Orkney Vole, Skomer Vole, Gwyniad, Schelly, Verdace, Pollan and Powan are all subspecies. And that’s only the endemic birds, mammals and fish. It doesn’t include reptiles, amphibs, inverts or plants. It also doesn’t include subspecies also found elsewhere, such as our House Sparrow, Carrion Crow or Blue Tit. It gives an idea of just how many subspecies there are, which in turn shows how the evolutionary process is always at work. We should be ensuring the safety (from Man) of subspecies the world over, whether they are non-descript or exotic, as they are the species of the future. Surely that should be a no-brainer? Every time a subspecies becomes extinct unnaturally, we take a step closer to the homogenisation of future biodiversity.
And that’s why the death of Lonesome George is more than just the passing of a mere subspecies. The more I think about it, and the more photos I see of him, the more it makes me sad.
And it should you too.