Monday, 26 October 2009

New epilogue for Lonesome George


I had some good news last week. The Charles Darwin Foundation, which supports scientific research in Galapagos, has asked to buy up 2000 copies of my first book Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon.

The book works on lots of levels – or it’s supposed to. At its simplest, it’s a gripping story of a Galapagos giant tortoise called George. NO. It’s not children’s fiction. If you haven’t heard of Lonesome George, shame on you he is the sole-surviving giant tortoise from one of the Galapagos Islands. All his immediate relatives got eaten by whalers and sailors in the 18th and 19th centuries or collected by scientists in the 19th and early 20th. Since 1971, when he was first spotted, he has worked away steadfastly to become the most famous Galapagos resident and a poster-boy for the conservation operation in the archipelago.

George’s personal journey is a terrific way to explore the Galapagos. You need to understand its geology to figure how tortoises reached the islands, ecology to appreciate where they fit in and evolutionary biology to make sense of the diversity of tortoises. Galapagos also gives easy access to a rich history of exploration and history of science (notably Charles Darwin).

Galapagos is like a crucible right now, where tensions are being played out between a will to conserve it, a desire to visit it and a wish to live there. Similar thorny tussles are being played out all around the world in just about every eco-tourist destination you care to name. So Lonesome George is a story about a tortoise, a rather special group of islands and the challenges facing global conservation in the 21st century.

It’s very gratifying to know that the Charles Darwin Foundation wants the book in their shop on the island of Santa Cruz (near where Lonesome George has been in captivity since the early 1970s). There will, of course, be a small royalty that will eventually come my way, but more importantly I see this is a seal of approval for the book.

My publishers Macmillan Science asked me to update the ending. I’m quite happy to do this as lots of things have happened to Lonesome George since the paperback came out in 2007. This shouldn’t take me too long as I’ve already written them up elsewhere: the discovery of Lonesome George-like genes on Isabela for New Scientist; the appearance of eggs in his enclosure in 2008 and the follow-up news of their infertility for Nature News; and the laying of yet more eggs this year in The Times. Meanwhile, an expedition has been launched to Isabela to see if there are more Lonesome George-like tortoises out there.

The thing is that in exchange for putting this together, I would quite like Macmillan to give me something in return: a commitment to publish more than the 2000 copies. You see, the paperback version of my book has been “out of print” – or as I prefer to put it “sold out” – for more than a year. I could personally have shifted several hundred copies had I had any to sell. Amazon could presumably have done more. But Macmillan, for some completely inexplicable reason, refused to reprint or to revert the rights to me (which would have allowed me or a more switched-on publisher to do so). Now the Charles Darwin Foundation order is triggering a reprint, they should take the opportunity to make some more copies.

So I asked them how many more. They didn’t know and were finding out but in the meantime could I get on and rewrite the epilogue. I said not until I had an idea of how many extra. They hazarded 500, but could I get on and write. Not so much as a please. I will, but I’m coming away from all this feeling like I am little more than an unavoidable nuisance. With any luck though I will have some books to take to my ongoing string of tortoise-related gigs...

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