Jad Abumrad: I'm Jad Abumrad.
Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich.
Jad: This is Radiolab. This hour--
Robert: Well, the honeymoon's over.
Robert: This is the place where Darwin began to develop his Theory of Evolution.
Jad: And is the place 170 years or maybe 180 years later where our producer Tim Howard landed wearing fishnets and a Bad Brains t-shirt-
Robert: Like I would
Jad: -to find a very different landscape than what Darwin saw.
Robert: We just told you a story about how far humans are willing to go to protect something.
Jad: This next part it's about how far we're willing to go to get something back that we've already lost. To restore a place and a creature to its "Wild state". This story unfolds on one of Galápagos's most northern islands where they also had to get rid of some goats. It's called Pinta.
James Gibbs: Pinta is a very special place.
Tim: This is James Gibbs.
James: Professor of Conservation Biology at the State University of New York. It's one of those islands, it's not part of any tourist visitation site.
Tim: So there are no people there.
James: And when you set foot first on Pinta you immediately sense sheer abundance of the insect life and birds.
Tim: The problem is, on Pinta, things were spinning out of control. The vegetation was growing wild, the forest was getting overgrown with the wrong kind of plants and the whole ecosystem was just tittering out of balance. One of the reasons for this according to Linda Cayot is that-
Linda Cayot: -we had an island with no tortoises.
Tim: Because tortoises are sort of like the lawnmowers.
Linda: They plow down vegetation, disperse seeds.
Tim: But for centuries they've been hunted by those whalers and in about 1906 the Pinta tortoise went extinct.
Tim: Yes. Little over a hundred years ago. They don't know the exact date but then one evening in March of 1972-
Peter Pritchard: Yes.
Tim: -this fellow-
Peter: Peter C.H. Pritchard.
Tim: -he's a well-known tortoise researcher. He was on Santa Cruz Island having dinner with some friends-
Peter: -and we got into chatting about tortoises.
Tim: And one of the people he's eating with says, "Hey, I was recently on Pinta island collecting snails and I saw this-
Peter: -tortoise." I thought, "Do you know what you have done?" There've been no tortoises there for a hundred years.
Tim: He and some national park rangers race out to Pinta and there it was-
Peter: -this beautiful tortoise.
Tim: One male tortoise, maybe 50 years old. They weren't sure. They'd eventually name him-
Tim: Lonesome George. But at the time the immediate question was-
Peter: -are there any more?
Tim: Because if they could find a female for George, then they could maybe de-extinct the species.
Peter: I poked around in the areas where we got the one and I found a shell of a female.
Peter: Dead animal.
Tim: How had this female tortoise died?
Peter: Someone chopped it in half.
Peter: You could see the marks where it was just chopped off. I felt violent. I wanted to borrow someone's gun and go and kill the person.
James: Everyone held out hopes for just finding more tortoises--
Tim: James says they kept going back, combing the island-
James: -with highly trained tortoise sniffing dogs.
Tim: But in the end, there's just George.
James: That then shifted the focus on, "Now what do we do?"
Linda: We then went to Wolf volcano-
Tim: -island next door-
Linda: -And collected two females.
Tim: Two females that sort of looked like George but weren't quite the same species.
Linda: We put them with George to see if we could get him to breed. He never did.
Tim: He wasn't interested so they thought, maybe he needs a Pinta lady. Now, of course, there are no female tortoises on Pinta but they thought maybe a zoo somewhere or a private collection has one because you really never know. They called around, offered huge cash rewards. People sent in dozens of tortoises but Linda took one look at them and was like-
Linda: No, no, no, no.
Tim: They weren't Pintas. Then they thought we've got to take matters into our own hands.
Linda: Basically what you do is you sit at the back of the tortoise. First, you have to get to where they'll allow you to touch them and eventually you start fondling their legs and tails, hoping to get them to ejaculate. I had a volunteer working with me. Her name was Sveva Grigioni. She worked with him every other day or so for a few months and was never successful.
James: We were really starting to get desperate about options when--
Tim: James says in a way it was a paradox because on the one hand, "Awesome, we have an actual living Pinta island tortoise," but on the other hand he might have actually been the worst possible candidate for the last of his kind.
James: He seemed to really like to keep to himself.
Linda: He never really liked other tortoises much. He didn't seem to like humans.
Tim: And maybe that's why he survived. He wasn't curious. James says, a lot of tortoises-
James: -they hear your footsteps, they raise their heads, they come out to see what's going on.
Tim: And then, they get whacked.
Tim: In any case, for about 40 years scientists tried everything humanly possible to get Lonesome George to mate with another tortoise so they could resurrect the species and bring Pinta Island back to its original state. Nothing worked. Until one day in July of 2008, George turns to the two female tortoises that he had been ignoring for years and he says-
George: Hello beautiful and beautiful.
Tim: Inexplicably, he just suddenly decides to mate with both of them. They each lay eggs.
James: Two clutches were ultimately laid in his coral.
Tim: And the scientists are like.
James: George got our hopes up dramatically, but they ultimately were infertile.
Tim: Mother [bleep].
Josh Donlan: In mid-80s they were having a meeting about this.
Tim: That's conservationist Josh Donlan again.
Josh: A whole bunch of herpetologists were out there and some island conservationists. They're talking about what to do with Pinta. If they can't get Lonesome George to reproduce which they were hoping to do because then they could build a Pinta population and put it on Pinta.
Tim: He says that as the meeting wore on it got tense.
Josh: For sure.
Tim: In fact one guy I spoke with-
Harry Green: Harry Green. I'm a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University.
Tim: -said that at this meeting there was one guy who just couldn't take it.
Harry: Oh, l I remember him just fuming. He sat there getting more and more and more frustrated and finally he just blurted out, "Shoot that [bleep] tortoise and quit wasting our time."
Josh: Because in his view, this single individual was holding up this huge conservation opportunity.
Harry: Of course the shock was-- there was a wave that went around the room when he said that. I recall seeing a second wave as the Spanish translation passed around the room.
Tim: Really what that guy was specifically saying was "Don't be precious."
Josh: A tortoise is a tortoise is a tortoise. Let's just take some tortoises-
Tim: -from a nearby island-
Josh: -and put them back on Pinta.
Tim: But there's a much bigger question here.
Josh: That that goes way beyond Galápagos.
Tim: Which is basically like, "What is the right way to protect nature now?"
Josh: People are right now throwing beers at each around what is the right strategy.
Tim: Josh says that there are basically two camps right now. On the one side, you've got this classic, what you might call the Eden approach.
Josh: Conservation biology, its foundation is this idea of pristine wilderness.
Linda: From the very beginning I think all of us, well I can't speak for other people, but you always have this idea of wanting to get it back to some kind of pre-human condition.
Tim: Pre-human being the operative word and if you think about it we all have this. We all have this picture of what we want to bring it all back to. It might be like.
Singer: You give me a home.
Tim: The plains just covered with.
SInger: Where the buffalo roam.
Tim: Buffalo or maybe the Serengeti desert with lions and elephants or maybe it's 10,000 hammerhead sharks but whatever the scene is, it just doesn't have any people.
Jad: But is carrying that idea, those pictures in your head even useful anymore?
Tim: So cynical.
Jad: No, but it just seems so unrealistic.
Josh: Right but in the bigger picture you can make the argument that humans now affect every square meter of the Earth.
Holly Doremus: There's no place, no matter how remote we get, you can go to the North Pole, it's been affected by human activity. You can go under the depths of the impenetrable jungle, it's been affected by human activity.
Tim: That's Holly Doremus. She's an environmental law professor at the Berkeley School of Law in California.
Holly: We are radically remaking the world and the question is, "What's our responsibility?"
Tim: This brings us to our second school of thought which in its most extreme version goes something like this.
Josh: We're God. We might as well get good at it. We're going to have to create these ecosystems based on our best science.
Tim: And you could argue we're going to have to get a whole lot better at making some very, very difficult decisions.
Holly: Climate change seems to mean that a lot of species are pretty much doomed. 30%, 40%, 50% of the species now on the planet in a few decades may be disappearing. This is what I think is really the tough question now is, if we can concede that we can't any longer save all the species. Then does that put us in the situation of having to decide which ones we'll save and which ones we won't and do we have any basis for making those kinds of decisions.
Robert: You're saying that "Let's go back to when it was good. Let's go back to a better time," that's just silly?
Holly: I didn't say it was silly.
Holly: I said it was impossible.
Holly: Things might not be silly. They might not be stupid ideas but we still might not be able to do them.
Tim: Okay so here's a wood plaque that says, "Lonesome George is the last survivor of the dynasty of land tortoises from Pinta Island." In fact, in 2012 after decades of trying to get him to breed, Lonesome George dies.
Josh: RIP, 24th of June, 2012.
Tim: The Pinta tortoise went extinct.
Jad: Damn, case in point, I guess. No going back.
Tim: Yes, that's what I thought but then I spoke with this woman.
Gisella Caccone: Hello?
Tim: Hello. Gisella, do you hear me?
Gisella: Yes I do.
Tim: Who scrambled everything up for me. Can I get you to introduce yourself?
Gisella: Yes, my name is Gisella Caccone. I am a senior research scientist at Yale University.
Tim: Gisella has come up with a radical idea.
Gisella: I call it the Phoenix Project.
Tim: Here's a backstory. In the mid-'90s-
Gisella: We started in 94.
Tim: -Gisella and some folks from the Galápagos National Park, they began taking a census of all the tortoises in the Galápagos.
Gisella: Every population of tortoises on all of the islands.
Tim: They were going to do this big population study so they went island by island. Took a little bit of blood from all these different tortoises, did a genetic analysis-
Gisella: and Hop là-
Tim: -found something they never expected. A group of tortoises not on Pinta that had a lot of Pinta DNA.
Gisella: I remember very clearly that moment was very exciting. It's like, "Yes, look at this."
Jad: Wait, you're saying this Pinta DNA was on another island?
Jad: Not on Pinta.
Jad: How would that happen?
Gisella: We don't think it was natural.
Tim: Gisella thinks it might have been the whalers.
Gisella: Either the whalers or the pirates.
Tim: You know because like we talked about in the 1700-1800s, these whalers would come along, bgrab a bunch of tortoises, put them on a ship, and then they would hunt for whales.
Whaler: Thar she blows.
Gisella: -when they were done and the ship was filled with whale products-
Whaler: There's no room down here.
Tim: -they throw a few extra tortoises overboard, say a few from-
Tim: Maybe those Pinta tortoises swam with the currents to that nearby island, set up a little ex-pat community, and started breeding with the locals.
Gisella: That's our working hypothesis.
Tim: Which brings us to her idea.
Gisella: On average, 50% of your genome comes from your mom and 50% from your dad but it's an average.
Tim: Gisella thought just by chance some of these tortoises are going to have a little bit more Pinta DNA from their Pinta ancestors than others.
Tim: What if we took those tortoises and breed them together?
Gisella: Select them for the next generation so you can give a push to this process.
Tim: She says if we keep doing that. Taking the babies with the most Pinta DNA, breeding them together, slowly, surely-
Gisella: -in four generations you could have 90% of the Pinta genome restored.
Gisella: Yes, but that's four generations of tortoises not rats, which means at least 100 years.
Tim: But in the meantime, the vegetation on Pinta is growing out of control.
Gisella: From an ecological point of view Pinta can't wait.
Tim: In 2009, they come up with a stopgap. They take 39 tortoises raised in captivity and they use them as placeholders. They sterilize them and put them on Pinta.
Robert: Wow, these are very purists visions they've got.
Josh: They sterilize them. There's 39 of them.
Jad: They're just basically the lawnmowers. They're not--
Tim: Exactly and they put them on Pinta and they are just chomping away right now. They're living out their lives really happily on Pinta until the originals are ready. Now, Linda says in the end, you don't actually need to do the full aggressive four-generation breeding thing. You can just take the best Pintaish tortoises you find and put those on Pinta.
Linda: Over the next 200,000 years, they will evolve into a Pinta tortoise and it could be a bit different than the past Pinta tortoise because evolution and mutation and all of that doesn't occur the same, but eventually nature's going to take over and they will evolve into Pinta tortoises.
Tim: Is this the way that everybody who works with tortoises thinks about it? This kind of deep time?
Linda: I don't know. I'm not sure many other people think about that.
Tim: I just walked past the newspaper that says, "72 hours left in the electoral campaign." The flags are still flying everywhere.
Robert: We'll be back in less than 200,000 years.
Jad: Yes, but we will be different when we come back.
Robert: Yes, we will.
Jad: Stay tuned.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.