After a five-hour trip by boat and another by land in a park ranger's backpack, Diego, the giant tortoise who helped save his species from extinction, finally reached his native Isla Española, in the emblematic Ecuadorian archipelago of Galapagos.
Diego, who is more than 100 years old, will have the opportunity to live in his natural environment after eight decades of residing in a zoo and a conservation center, where he sired at least 800 young.
On June 15, the Galapagos National Park organized the release of Diego and 14 other giant tortoises, which had been part of a breeding program that began in the 1960s in order to recover the population of Chelonoidis hoodensis on Española Island, where the species had been reduced to only 15 specimens.
The project was based on Santa Cruz, another island in the archipelago. Diego and two other males, plus 12 females, participated in the recovery project so successfully that Espanola Island now has a stable population of around 2,300 tortoises.
Renowned for his fertility, Diego stood out for his charismatic personality. His keepers describe him as very active and vocal in his mating habits. When the Park announced in 2016 that it had spawned at least 40% of all young tortoises on Española Island, Diego went viral.
This stallion lived at the San Diego Zoo for 30 years and returned to the Galapagos in 1976. His impressive track record has drawn worldwide attention. “Diego's efforts helped us to raise a species that was on the brink of extinction. The legacy that Diego leaves us is to carry on, ”said Freddy Villalba, park ranger for the islands.
Three species have been officially declared extinct: Chelonoidis abingdonii (Pinta Island), Chelonoidis niger (Floreana Island) and Chelonoidis phantasticus (Fernandina Island). Of the latter species a specimen could have been found, but genetic tests are still being developed to confirm the discovery.
Diego and his 14 companions bred in captivity for more than 40 decades. They lived in two pens, where the scientists collected the eggs and then stored them in incubators. Once the turtles were born, they stayed at the recovery center for seven years before being returned to Española Island. This method lasted until 2012. In 2018, the last young specimens were transported to Española Island.
“Without a doubt, the Isla Española turtle breeding program is a successful conservation story, as we were able to restore this population with only 15 individuals. Now we have detected natural reproduction on the island and we are ready to close the program, ”said Danny Rueda, director of the Galapagos National Park.
Ecuador's Ministry of the Environment and Water decided to end the program, after a 2019 census on Española Island discovered that the island had sufficient conditions to maintain the turtle population, which will continue to grow normally, even without new repatriation of young people. turtles. The study was carried out by the Directorate of the Galapagos National Park and Galapagos Conservancy, as part of the Initiative for the Restoration of the Giant Tortoises.
"The survival rate of young turtles is over 50%," said Rueda, who emphasizes that the breeding program was accompanied by measures to restore the ecosystem.
“With so few turtles for so long, the ecosystem dynamics on Española Island had changed. In the 1970s, we eradicated goats, which were introduced in the 17th century by pirates and whalers. Eight years ago we began to reintroduce cacti and other plant species that are essential for the turtle's diet, ”said Rueda.
Diego and the other 14 turtles were transported by park rangers 2.5 kilometers into the interior of the island, where there are abundant cacti. The females weigh around 35 kilograms, while the males weigh 55 kilograms. They are all between 80 and 100 years old.
From now on, they will be monitored by GPS trackers and 40 camera traps. Free but closely watched by the rangers who have cared for them for so long, Diego and his companions will finally be able to wander their home island.