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