Macho "Diego" Helps Save Galapagos Tortoises

September 26, 2012
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There are many reasons to travel to the Galapagos Islands, but the diverse, approachable wildlife is one of the most popular reasons for people to visit the archipelago. Besides Charles Darwin's finches, perhaps the most famous inhabitants of the Galapagos are the tortoises — and these islands includes a few famous ones.

In recent weeks, Galapagos tortoises have been in the news because of the sad passing of “Lonesome George.” George was a Pinta Island tortoise, a species once thought to be extinct until researchers on the island found George. In an attempt to keep the species alive, scientists attempted to breed George with other tortoises of a similar genetic makeup.

Despite his companions laying eggs several times, George never produced offspring and died on June 24, 2012 at the Charles Darwin Research Station. But George isn't the only famous tortoise from the Galapagos. The story of Diego, an Española Island tortoise, is quite different.

Diego is a "bossy, macho reptile," according to his handlers, and those personality traits may ultimately have saved his species. Diego was taken from the Galapagos Islands before 1930 and eventually found his way to the San Diego Zoo. However, the zoo returned him to the Galapagos in 1975 when it was clear his species was in trouble. When Diego returned, there were only two other males of his kind, and 12 females.

Over the years, Diego has rejuvenated his species almost entirely on his own. Placed in a corral with the other tortoises, Diego quickly dominated the other males with aggressive bites and shoves, to the point that Diego was moved to his own pen with five of the females. Since then, the tortoise has produced hundreds of offspring, who have in turn gone on to help increase the tortoise population. Of the 1,700 tortoises produced in the breeding program at the Charles Darwin Research Station, Diego is thought to be responsible for about 45 percent.

"Diego is very territorial, including with humans," said his keeper, Fausto Llerena, who also took care of Lonesome George. "He once bit me, and two weeks ago he tried [again] to bite me. When you enter his pen, Diego comes near and his intentions aren’t friendly."

Despite the sometimes antagonistic relationship Diego has with his keepers and other tortoises, Llerena acknowledges that the feisty turtle has become quite popular with the tourists who visit the site.

"I think he’s going to be the successor to Lonesome George, the new favorite," Llerena told the news source.

Do you want to visit Diego on your Galapagos Island cruise?