It's hard to tell whether Lonesome George, the last known survivor of his giant tortoise subspecies in the Galapagos Islands, is truly lonely.
The nearly 100-year-old reptile hasn't spent a day alone in four decades and recently moved in with two new potential girlfriends of a similar species.
Since George was discovered on his native Pinta Island in the Ecuadorean-ruled Galapagos archipelago in 1971, an army of park rangers and scientists has tried to play matchmaker. But the females deemed great catches for him appear to have become nightmare blind dates, some of which dragged on for years. Ecuadorean officials have searched every square foot of Pinta, scoured remote villages in mainland Ecuador and sent letters to large and obscure zoos in hopes that there is a lonesome Pinta female living an anonymous existence.
"We're always sending out letters to see if there might be one out there, somewhere," said Lonesome George's main caretaker, Fausto Llerena, speaking near the tortoise's open-air habitat on Santa Cruz Island.
Tens of thousands of giant tortoises -- which can live for more than 200 years -- once roamed the Galapagos. Pirates in search of Spanish treasure ships and whalers in the 16th and 17th centuries were the animals' first known human predators. The tortoise populations were further destroyed when goats, cattle and donkeys, which competed for grazing, were introduced in the islands. Dogs and pigs ate the reptiles' eggs. By the 1960s, when Ecuador stepped up efforts to restore the archipelago's threatened ecosystems, two of 14 subspecies of giant tortoises had become extinct.
On Espanola Island, Ecuadorean officials found 14 adult tortoises, including just two males. They took the animals to the national park's tortoise-breeding center on Santa Cruz Island, fearing the subspecies would otherwise die off.
In 1971, national park officials traveled to Pinta, a 37-square-mile uninhabited island, to evict the goats that had upset its ecosystem. A student on the goat-clearing mission spotted a lone giant tortoise: Lonesome George. His discovery set off a search for other Pinta tortoises. "We've searched so much, but we haven't managed to find another one," Llerena said. "Just skeletons."
In 1991, park officials decided to place Lonesome George with female tortoises from Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island. Two laid eggs, but none hatched. Much later, scientists determined that the Espanola tortoises were genetically closer to the Pinta, and in January, two Espanola females replaced the ones from Wolf. "He's getting to know them," Llerena said. "Lately he seems more animated."