SAN DIEGO – A giant tortoise from the San Diego Zoo has created his own Galápagos Islands following.
Diego, a playboy tortoise, has gained him a place in the national spotlight, with CNN saying he “may have single-handedly saved his entire species from extinction.”
Diego came to the San Diego Zoo from the Galapagos as a young adult in the early 1930s, said Rick Schwartz, San Diego Zoo spokesman. In the mid-1970s, a plea came from Galapagos wildlife officials spearheading a breeding program to save the area’s dwindling population of the gentle giants that weigh 450 to 500 pounds as adults. They were searching for a subspecies of tortoise from the island of Espanola, where the creatures were on the brink of extinction likely because of human impact and possible climate change. Only two males and 12 females remained.
DNA testing confirmed that Diego was from that island, so the San Diego Zoo returned him in 1977. Little did anyone suspect that Diego would turn into a love machine drawn to the females who seemed to find him especially attractive.
Since the program started, he and the two remaining Espanola males and their offspring have boosted their subspecies population to more than 2,000. Diego, the Genghis Khan of tortoises, was determined to be responsible for fathering 800 to 1,000 of them.
“He’s a real Casanova,” said Schwartz. The caretakers told Schwartz that Diego was very personable. “The caretakers all adored him,” he said.
One of the primary characteristics differentiating the Espanola Island subspecies from others is that, instead of the more common dome-shaped shell, they have a saddleback-shaped shell that rises to a peak behind the head. Espanola has a drier habitat and, instead of eating grass and low-lying plants, its tortoise population must feed from trees. The raised shell allows more flexible neck movement.
No one knows how old Diego was when he came to the San Diego Zoo. But he was an adult, Schwartz said. “He could be over 100 years old.”
But his fatherhood days are thought to be far from over because these gentle giants are known to live to the age of 150. Plus, the habitat restoration and breeding program has been so successful that Diego is headed back into the wild on his former home island.