Diego the Galapagos stud retires after fathering 800 children

If you’re more than 100 years old, have 800 kids of your own and you’re the main reason that your entire species has been saved, then you’ve surely earned yourself a decent rest. Diego the Galapagos giant tortoise thinks so, and he’s now heading back to the place of his birth to put his four feet up and contemplate the meaning of life in retirement.

Back to the island Diego left as a youngster

Along with several others of his species, he has just been relocated from Santa Cruz Island, one of the 39 islands that make up the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador in South America, to Espanola Island.

The latter is where he was born more than a century ago, before being taken off to a zoo in California. He spent 30 years there entertaining and educating the Americans, before being moved into a breeding programme on Santa Cruz Island about 50 years ago.

Giant tortoises were hunted to near-extinction

At the time his species was in dire trouble, with only a handful left in the wild as a result of being hunted to near extinction and having their eggs and natural habitats destroyed by non-native species such as feral pigs, dogs, cats and cattle.

During the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, more than 100 000 tortoises are estimated to have been killed for food by sailors and early explorers.

So abundant were they, that the Spanish sailors who arrived in the archipelago in 1535 named it after the abundant tortoises. The Spanish word for tortoise is galápago.

Captive breeding programme has saved the species

Fortunately, the Ecuadorian government and environmentalists recognised the impending extinction of the tortoises and opened a breeding programme on Santa Cruz Island at a time when there were only two males and 12 females left.

Diego arrived from the US and took to his species-saving task with enthusiasm. In the course of the past five decades he has fathered an estimated 800 Galapagos tortoises — roughly 40% of the species’ total population that has grown to around 2 000 in the wild.

So successful has the breeding programme been that it has now been closed down by the Ecuadorian authorities and Diego and the other captive tortoises have been taken home to Espanola Island.

Diego can go home

A feeling of happiness that he can go home

“He (Diego) has contributed a large percentage to the lineage that we are returning to Espanola,” Jorge Carrion, the director of the national park on Santa Cruz, told AFP news agency.

“There’s a feeling of happiness to have the possibility of returning that tortoise to his natural state.”

Diego’s retirement could be lengthy. The giant tortoises — known for their long, leathery necks — have lifespans of well over a hundred years.

The oldest known Galapagos tortoise, Harriet, died in 2006 at an Australian zoo aged 176.

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