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Wednesday 13 December 2017

Star tortoise fills George's shell

Tortoise Diego has sired hundreds of offspring (AP/Galapagos National Park)
Tortoise Diego has sired hundreds of offspring (AP/Galapagos National Park)

Lonesome George's inability to reproduce made him a global symbol of efforts to halt the disappearance of species. And while his kind died with him, that does not mean the famed giant tortoise leaves no heir apparent.

The Galapagos Islands have another centenarian who fills a shell pretty well. He is Diego, a prolific, bossy, macho reptile. Unlike Lonesome George, who died on June 24, Diego symbolises not a dying breed, but one resurrected.

Having sired hundreds of offspring, Diego has been central to bringing the Espanola Island type of tortoise back from near extinction, rangers at Galapagos National Park say.

Diego was plucked from Espanola some time between 1900 and 1930 and ended up in the San Diego Zoo in California, said the head of the park's conservation programme, Washington Tapia. When the US zoo returned him to the Galapagos in 1975, the only other known living members of his species were two males and 12 females.

Chelonoidis hoodensis - some consider it species, some a sub-species - had been all but destroyed, mostly by domestic animals introduced by humans that ate their eggs. So Diego and the others were placed in a corral at the park's breeding centre on Santa Cruz, the main island in the isolated archipelago.

"Diego is very territorial, including with humans," said his keeper Fausto Llerena. "He once bit me and two weeks ago he tried to bite me. When you enter his pen Diego comes near and his intentions aren't friendly."

Mr Tapia said it is impossible to know Diego's age, but he is well over 100. He estimates Diego is the father of 40 to 45% of the 1,781 tortoises born in the breeding programme and placed on Espanola island.

A visit to Lonesome George, who could not reproduce, became de rigueur for celebrities and common folk alike among the 180,000 people who annually visit the Galapagos. Among his last visitors were Richard Gere, the Prince of Wales and Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and their family.

Before humans arrived in the Galapagos, the six islands were home to tens of thousands of giant tortoises. Numbers were down to about 3,000 in 1974, but the recovery programme run by the national park and the Charles Darwin Foundation has succeeded in increasing the overall population to 20,000.

The offspring of Diego and his male rivals in the corrals of Santa Cruz have themselves been reproducing in the wild on Espanola island since 1990. "We can now say that the reproduction of this species is guaranteed," said Mr Tapia.

Press Association

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