Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Henry Nicholls' "Lonesome George"

Henry Nicholls' first book, Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon, was published by Macmillan Science in April 2006, was longlisted for the 2006 Guardian First Book Award and shortlisted for the Royal Society's prestigious General Book Prize.

Nicholls applied the "Page 99 Test" to the book and reported the following:
Page 99 covers the most dramatic moment in the extraordinary life of Lonesome George, the sole-surviving giant tortoise from the Galapagos Island of Pinta. Ever since 1972, George has been kept in captivity at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the central island of Santa Cruz in the hope that conservationists would find other members of his species. They haven’t yet.

His plight has made him a huge tourist attraction, visited each year by over 50,000 ecotourists and a poster-boy for conservationists trying to preserve the weird and wonderful biodiversity of these islands. And this popularity has earned him several death threats.

In the early 1990s, the dwindling supply of sea cucumbers off the West coast of South America began to fail the rising demand in the restaurants of Southeast Asia. For the fishermen, the rich and untouched waters around the Galapagos promised rich pickings – quite literally. Conservationists in the islands attempted to contain the exploitation by imposing quotas on the sea cucumber fishery.

This did not go down well and twice, in 1995, fishermen caused unrest, taking control of the islands’ airports and disrupting the work of the Charles Darwin Research Station and its sister organisation the Galapagos National Park Service. At around midday on 4 September, the leader of the fishermen made an impassioned broadcast on public radio, encouraging his disgruntled mob to enter, sack and burn the CDRS and GNPS buildings. Within minutes of his address, a crowd brandishing machetes and bludgeons ran into the compound, threatening to kill the iconic Lonesome George and the GNPS director unless fishing restrictions were lifted.

I used this story, the meat of which appears on p. 99, to explore how such conflicts between conservation aims and the interests of local people are being played out the world over.

This is something I tried to do at every possible opportunity throughout the book – to take the reader out from George’s fascinating but narrow narrative, away even from the mesmerizing Galapagos Islands and onto a far wider conservation landscape. In this way, I hope George’s story is not just a tale of a rather special tortoise but, more importantly, a fact-filled, entertaining insight into the complex challenges facing conservation biologists in the 21st century.
Read a sample chapter from Lonesome George and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue