Diego the tortoise, the Don Juan of the Galapagos, is the saviour of his species

Centenarian giant tortoise has almost single-handedly saved his kind from extinction.

Diego the tortoise walks around a breeding centre on September 10, 2016, on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos archipelago, located some 1,000km off Ecuador’s coast. Rodrigo Buendia / Agence France-Presse
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PUERTO AYORA, ECUADOR // He is more than 100 years old, but his love life is the stuff of legend. Diego the tortoise is quite the lady’s man, and his exploits have helped save his species from extinction.

Diego, a Galapagos giant tortoise, has fathered an estimated 800 offspring, almost single-handedly rebuilding the population of his species on their native island, Espanola, the southernmost in the Galapagos Archipelago.

“He’s a very sexually active male reproducer. He’s contributed enormously to repopulating the island,” said Washington Tapia, a tortoise preservation specialist at Galapagos National Park.

Diego is a Chelonoidis hoodensis, a species found in the wild only on Espanola.

The island is one of the oldest in the Galapagos, the Pacific archipelago made famous by Charles Darwin’s studies of its breathtaking biodiversity.

Around 50 years ago, there were only two males and 12 females of Diego’s kind of giant tortoise left alive on Espanola, and they were too spread out to reproduce.

He has done more than any other tortoise to turn that around — with the help of his mates, of course.

Diego lives at a tortoise breeding centre on Santa Cruz Island, one of the largest in the Galapagos. He is the dominant male of the three assigned to repopulate Espanola, and shares his enclosure with six females, his partners in the task of saving their species.

Tough work, but some tortoise has to do it.

Diego weighs about 80 kilograms is nearly 90 centimetres long and 1.5 meters tall if he really stretches his legs and neck. He has a mysterious, globe-trotting background to go with his reputation as a Casanova.

Diego was found at the San Diego Zoo — hence his name — after Chelonoidis hoodensis was identified as a species and an international campaign was launched to find more of the rare tortoises. No one knows for certain when or how he arrived in the United States. “He must have been taken from Espanola sometime between 1900 and 1959 by a scientific expedition,” said Mr Tapia.

He was brought back to the Galapagos in 1976 to play a key role in the captive breeding programme. Six years ago, tests revealed just how effective he has been.

“We did a genetic study and we discovered that he was the father of nearly 40 per cent of the offspring released into the wild on Espanola,” said Mr Tapia.

In all, around 2,000 tortoises have been released on the small island and the species is no longer facing extinction.

“I wouldn’t say (the species) is in perfect health, because historical records show there probably used to be more than 5,000 tortoises on the island. But it’s a population that’s in pretty good shape — and growing, which is the most important,” said Mr Tapia.

Of the 15 species of giant tortoise known to have originated in the Galapagos, three have become extinct — victims of 18th-century pirates who plundered the islands’ fragile ecosystem.

Diego’s species has also been introduced on the island of Santa Fe, where a genetically similar one, Chelonoidis spp, disappeared more than 150 years ago.

Not all critically endangered tortoises rise to the challenge as Diego has.

Hopes for another threatened species, Chelonoidis abingdoni, faded when its last known survivor died in 2012 at more than 100 years old.

Known as Lonesome George, he had refused for years to breed in captivity.

* Agence France Presse