Encountering one of the world’s rarest species
What it feels like to come across a bolson tortoise
I am often driven into the wilderness by loneliness. The city with its crows and skunks is suddenly not enough, and I feel an urgent need to see all the old gang—a whole community of species. Elk and dragonflies and weasels and June bugs and bears and great blue herons.
Every species is a reminder that being human is only one of a billion ways to be, and the most poignant reminders are the endangered species. If a species is endangered, it is too often because it is a poor fit with human priorities: the Iberian lynx, simply unwilling to live among us as we crowd its territories; the angel shark, prone to dying as wasted bycatch in the nets of our trawl fisheries; the unnamed and undiscovered insects of Canada’s rainforests, their continued presence on Earth wholly dependent on trees that we pulp for toilet paper.
Not long ago, I found myself standing alongside a bolson tortoise, Gopherus flavomarginatus, in a desert in northern Mexico. The search for the elusive reptile had been a long one under a needling sun, and so the first thrill was that of a successful hunt. The tortoise was the genuine article—internationally red-listed and certified under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. No one knows how many remain in the wild, but certainly no more than a few thousand.
On paper, the decline of the bolson tortoise can be blamed on the usual blandly genocidal factors, from millennia of overhunting to habitat destruction. With the animal at the tips of my boots, however, a more elemental problem was obvious-the tortoise is just too damned unhuman. The pace of its life is wrong. Given the choice between fight or flight, it does neither. Studies show, in fact, that as much as 90 per cent of the time, a bolson tortoise hardly moves at all. In a life that can last a century or more, it may never wander further than a few dozen feet from its burrow-a life, in other words, that would strike most of us as impossibly, almost immorally, small. Snug in its shell, the bolson tortoise shows no interest in globalizing its brand identity.
I picked it up.
Such force of life! A bolson tortoise may look like a boulder and weigh as much, but no one could mistake it for cold, hard stone. It practically hummed with vitality—the beast had existential heft. It was a challenge, a question, a demand.
Human beings value scarcity, whether in hockey cards or fossil fuel deposits. During a trip I made to Yellowstone National Park this spring, a naturalist slipped me a pamphlet about a species of sand verbena found nowhere else in the world. They no longer hand out the pamphlet to just anyone, she said. In their eagerness to see the drab little plant, tourists had threatened to trample it out of existence.
But the real rarity in seeing an endangered species comes at the gut level of epiphany: the personalization of deep mortality. You are looking at a living thing that, for reasons utterly enmeshed with the way we live, the next generation may know only from history. It pains me even now: future humans may never look into the strange, wondering, wary black eye of the tortoise. The grand cycle of life and death doesn’t hold a candle to extinction. Extinction is the death of life and death.
For more than two million years, bolson tortoises roamed through ice ages, climate change and the other ups and downs of time on a geological scale. They can live a year or more without food or water. They are perfectly adapted to a place that no human culture has ever truly called home. The tortoise is a miracle.
I put the animal I was holding back on the ground, more carefully than I had picked it up.
This article was originally published on August 27, 2009