Giant tortoise is saving species from extinction

Diego, the former San Diego tortoise, strikes a pose at the San Diego Zoo, where he was on exhibit for about 40 years. He left in 1977 to take part in a Galapagos Islands breeding program through which he is credited with playing a large role in saving his dwindling sub-species from extinction. Courtesy of San Diego Zoo Global

SAN DIEGO — A giant tortoise from the San Diego Zoo has created his own Galapagos Islands following — literally.

The love life of Diego, a playboy tortoise, has gained him a place in the national spotlight.

On Sunday, CNN publicized the story of a “womanizing tortoise whose rampant sex life may have single-handedly saved his entire species from extinction.”

This offbeat news even diverted the attention of U.S. Rep. Scott Peters, a San Diego Democrat, from the issues of Iran and impeachment long enough for Peters to tweet his congratulations Sunday: “Thanks to this San Diegan, doing good for the world in his own way.”

Diego came to the San Diego Zoo as a young adult in the early 1930s when several land tortoises from the Galapagos Islands were shipped to U.S. zoos, said Rick Schwartz, San Diego Zoo Global ambassador and spokesman.

In the mid-1970s, though, a plea came from Galapagos wildlife officials spearheading a breeding program to save the area’s dwindling population of the gentle giants that weigh between 450 and 500 pounds as adults.

They were specifically searching for a subspecies of tortoise from the Galapagos island of Espanola, where the giant creatures were on the brink of extinction. 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. Ever since, Diego has been hard at work at a Galapagos National Parks service breeding center on Santa Cruz Island.

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, or at least 40%.

“He’s a real Casanova,” said Schwartz, who last visited Diego at the Galapagos breeding center about 10 years ago. He has no idea what attracted the female tortoises to Diego or made him more prolific than the other guys, but perhaps it was his charming personality. The caretakers told Schwartz that Diego was a very personable tortoise. “The caretakers all adored him,” Schwartz 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 first came to the San Diego Zoo. But he was an adult, and tortoises don’t reach maturity until they are 10 to 15 years old, 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, he is now truly getting to sample the wild life. So successful has habitat restoration and breeding been that the head of the Galapagos National Park informed CNN that Diego is headed back into the wild on his former home island.

Tribune Wire

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