Diego the leg­end keeps his kind alive

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

HE’S over 100 years old, but his sex life is the stuff of lore. Diego the Tor­toise is quite the ladies’ man, and his ex­ploits have helped save his species from ex­tinc­tion. Diego, a Gala­pa­gos gi­ant tor­toise, has fa­thered an es­ti­mated 800 off­spring, al­most sin­gle-hand­edly re­build­ing the species’ pop­u­la­tion on their na­tive is­land, Es­panola, the south­ern­most in the Gala­pa­gos Ar­chi­pel­ago.

“He’s a very sex­u­ally ac­tive male re­pro­ducer. He’s con­trib­uted enor­mously to re­pop­u­lat­ing the is­land,” said Wash­ing­ton Tapia, a tor­toise preser­va­tion spe­cial­ist at Gala­pa­gos Na­tional Park.

Diego is a Ch­elonoidis hood­en­sis, a species found in the wild only on Es­panola.

The is­land is one of the old­est in the Gala­pa­gos, the Pa­cific ar­chi­pel­ago made fa­mous by Charles Dar­win’s stud­ies of its breath­tak­ing bio­di­ver­sity.

Around 50 years ago, there were only two males and 12 fe­males of Diego’s species alive on Es­panola, and they were too spread out to re­pro­duce.

He has done more than any other tor­toise to turn that around – with the help of his mates, of course.

Diego lives at a tor­toise breed­ing cen­tre on Santa Cruz Is­land, one of the largest in the Gala­pa­gos.

He is the dom­i­nant male of the three as­signed to re­pop­u­late Es­panola.

He shares his en­clo­sure with six fe­males, his part­ners in the task of sav­ing their species.

Tough work, but some tor­toise has to do it.

On a cloudy morn­ing with chilly wind, Diego timidly peeks his head out from his thick shell, then slowly plods to­ward some leaves for breakfast.

“Look! Look! He came out. How pretty,” said a young girl as she looked on.

Diego weighs about 80 kilo­grams (175 pounds), is nearly 90 cen­time­ters (35 inches) long and 1.5 me­ters (5 feet) tall if he re­ally stretches his legs and neck.

He has a mys­te­ri­ous, glo­be­trot­ting back­ground to go with his rep­u­ta­tion as a Casanova.

Diego was found at the San Diego Zoo – hence his name – af­ter Ch­elonoidis hood­en­sis was iden­ti­fied as a species and an in­ter­na­tional cam­paign was launched to find more of the rare tor­toises.

“We don’t know ex­actly how or when he ar­rived in the United States. He must have been taken from Es­panola some­time be­tween 1900 and 1959 by a sci­en­tific ex­pe­di­tion,” said Tapia.

Af­ter be­ing lo­cated at the zoo in Cal­i­for­nia, Diego was brought back to the Gala­pa­gos in 1976 and put in the cap­tive breed­ing pro­gram.

Lit­tle did sci­en­tists re­alise just how ef­fec­tive he was, un­til six years ago.

“We did a ge­netic study and we dis­cov­ered that he was the fa­ther of nearly 40 per­cent of the off­spring re­leased into the wild on Es­panola,” Tapia told AFP.

In all, around 2000 tor­toises have been re­leased on the small is­land. Thanks to the pro­gram, the species is no longer fac­ing ex­tinc­tion.

“I wouldn’t say [the species] is in per­fect health, be­cause his­tor­i­cal records show there prob­a­bly used to be more than 5000 tor­toises on the is­land. But it’s a pop­u­la­tion that’s in pretty good shape – and grow­ing, which is the most im­por­tant,” said Tapia.

Of the 15 species of gi­ant tor­toise known to have orig­i­nated in the Gala­pa­gos, three have gone ex­tinct – vic­tims of 18th-cen­tury pirates who plun­dered the is­lands’ frag­ile ecosys­tem.

Diego’s species has also been in­tro­duced on the is­land of Santa Fe, where a ge­net­i­cally sim­i­lar one, Ch­elonoidis spp, dis­ap­peared more than 150 years ago.

Not all crit­i­cally en­dan­gered tor­toises rise to the chal­lenge as Diego has. Hopes for another threat­ened species, Ch­elonoidis abing­doni, faded when its last known sur­vivor died in 2012 at more than 100 years old.

Known as Lone­some Ge­orge, he had re­fused for years to breed in cap­tiv­ity.

Photo: AFP

Diego, a Gala­pa­gos gi­ant tor­toise, has fa­thered 40 per­cent of the known mem­bers of his species.

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