Real-life sto­ries

Diego the gi­ant tor­toise has worked his magic to save his species

World of Animals - - Contents -

How Diego the tor­toise sin­gle­hand­edly re­pop­u­lated a species

Ev­ery­one’s heard of Lone­some Ge­orge, the last male Pinta tor­toise who died in 2012 hav­ing re­fused to mate dur­ing his 30 years in cap­tiv­ity. This re­luc­tance to be­come a fa­ther is cer­tainly not shared by all Galá­pa­gos tor­toises. Meet Su­per Diego, the tor­toise cred­ited with sav­ing his en­tire species thanks to his luck with the ladies.

In 1976, Diego was liv­ing a quiet life at San Diego Zoo when he sud­denly be­came a wanted tor­toise. He’d been taken from Es­pañola (one of the old­est is­lands in the ar­chi­pel­ago) some time be­tween 1900 and 1959 but was rapidly re­turned to the Galá­pa­gos be­cause it was dis­cov­ered that the Es­pañola gi­ant tor­toise was a dis­tinct species – one in dire trou­ble.

When sailors and ex­plor­ers first started land­ing on the Galá­pa­gos Is­lands, they didn’t see the tor­toises as won­ders of na­ture that needed to be con­served; they saw huge, de­li­cious meals that could sur­vive on long jour­neys. Even fa­mous nat­u­ral­ist Charles Dar­win feasted on gi­ant tor­toise soup. As their pop­u­la­tions dwin­dled and tor­toises be­came iso­lated, species be­came threat­ened or even went ex­tinct. 50 years ago, just 12 fe­male and two male Es­pañola gi­ant tor­toises were left on the is­land, all of them too spread out to meet and breed. Thank­fully, Diego was on hand to save the day.

Set­tled into his new home in the Fausto Ller­ena Tor­toise Cen­tre on Santa Cruz Is­land, Diego got to work re-es­tab­lish­ing the Es­pañola pop­u­la­tion with the help of six fe­males. Over four decades it’s es­ti­mated he’s sired up to 800 off­spring – around 45 per cent of all the young Es­pañola tor­toises re­leased onto the is­land.

Due to the hard work of the tor­toises in the breed­ing pro­gramme and the peo­ple who care for them, the species is no longer in im­me­di­ate dan­ger of ex­tinc­tion. Now at the ripe old age of 100, Diego is still go­ing. He’ll have to keep up the pace if he wants to hold onto his rather im­pres­sive record though, as another male – sim­ply called Male No. 3 – is clos­ing in with hun­dreds of his own off­spring.

“Over four decades it’s es­ti­mated that he’s sired up to 800 off­spring”

Tor­toise cen­treRe­place­ment Na­tiveRepa­tri­atedEx­tinct (time of ex­tinc­tion) Hy­bridFer­nan­d­inaIs­abelaPintaMarchenaSan­ti­agoPinzón Santa CruzFlore­anaSanta FeGen­ovesaSan CristóbalEs­pañola201239>700054>200~500>1000~800>60001900s>3000>400~100>6000>50>800>500>25Fausto Ller­enaTor­toise Cen­tre>500>1000>2500>1000Ar­naldo TupizaJac­into Gordillo>4001800sTor­toise Cen­treTor­toise Cen­tre1800s2000+15

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