Ecuador initiated the process this week to declare Lonesome George, the last tortoise of its species that died in June of natural causes in the Galapagos Islands, as part of the nation's cultural heritage, the Coordinating Ministry of National and Cultural Heritage said.

"Lonesome George symbolizes the conservation of the natural heritage of the Galapagos Islands and of the planet, while also being part of Ecuador's collective memory and cultural identity," the ministry said.

The ministry also said it has begun gathering data with the aid of a number of scientists, since the century-old tortoise is of "interest to science and the natural history of the Galapagos and the world."

The creature's exact age when it expired is unknown but "is estimated at more than 100 years."

Meanwhile the deputy coordinating minister of national and cultural heritage, Juan Carlos Coellar, presented a plaque on July 4 to the authorities of Galapagos National Park and Government Council in commemoration of Solitary George during a solemn session that also celebrated the creation of the national park.

In his speech, Coellar said that "this is not just to commemorate Lonesome George but also in recognition of the vast biodiversity of the islands, and I invite all citizens to continue the preservation of this fragile ecosystem."

The giant chelonian's body will be embalmed and exhibited at an information center dedicated exclusively to land tortoises, the MCP said.

The center has yet to be constructed and will be named after its stellar specimen, the tortoise from La Pinta Island that was the last of the Chelonoidis abingdoni species and for 40 years was a symbol of the Galapagos.

Lonesome George was kept at the Charles Darwin Research Station's tortoise breeding center on the island of Santa Cruz.

The Galapagos Islands, located in the Pacific Ocean some 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) west of the Ecuadorian mainland, served as a natural laboratory that inspired English scientist Charles Darwin to develop his theory about evolution, natural selection and the origin of species. 

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