Mon, 28 Feb 2022

A heart-warming tale of return from exile.

It’s already hot on this December morning on Española Island. The southernmost of the Galápagos Islands is also one of the driest, and the sunbaked lava rocks seem to fair shimmer with heatwaves, even though the cool season hasn’t ended yet.  Everything is still, the plants are dormant, waiting for the rains still months away.  Although I’ve only been walking for about an hour, I swear I have yet to find two boulders of the same shape or angle underfoot, and already my ankles are on fire from so much twisting and turning.

Diego and his cactus, home at last.

My first encounter with Diego on his home island.

Just ahead, under the skinny shade of a stolid old giant cactus, I see another boulder, a little bigger than the rest.  Instinctively I know this is no ordinary rock, and my heart skips a beat.  I’ve been waiting a very long time for this moment.  A white lump on its back is what lead me here: a satellite transmitter providing the GPS coordinates that Dr. James Gibbs, advisor to several giant tortoise conservation projects, sent to me from New York a few days ago.

The rock doesn’t move, but slowly a slender head rises like a periscope, and shiny black eyes, set in an oddly pale face, study me at length.  Gingerly I step forward, as if granted a royal audience, and indeed that’s what this encounter is.  In a low voice — which he may or may not be able to hear — I say “Hello Diego, how ARE you doing old man?  What’s it like to be home at last?”  He looks unfazed, totally at ease, as if he hadn’t just spent 90+ years in exile!

Diego is an old male Española saddleback tortoise, Chelonoidis hoodensis, and his journey is nothing short of extraordinary.  His nickname comes from the four decades he spent at the San Diego Zoo, from where he was generously returned to Galapagos in 1977 to join the captive breeding program that was started by the Charles Darwin Research Station, and later expanded by the Galapagos National Park Directorate. During this time, Diego became famous as a ‘super stud’, fathering many of the thousands of baby tortoises hatched at the facility for reintroduction to their island of origin.

At first sight, Diego sizes me up…

…then comes striding over for a closer look.

Now, at last, Diego is home.  His story is a long and tortuous one, beginning with his capture and trip to New York’s Bronx Zoo in an effort to forestall his species’ extinction.  There were many twists and turns, with most of his congeners before him not being so lucky.  In 1820 Española tortoises were reportedly cooked in their own shell by the desperate castaway sailors of the whaling ship Essex after it was sunk by an enraged sperm whale — the real-life story that gave rise to the famous 19th century novel, Moby Dick. And during the California Gold Rush, hapless Galapagos tortoises figured as “terrapin” on expensive exotic menus in San Francisco.

But Diego is at peace now, mission accomplished, his species saved.  All he needs is a fruit or spiny pad to fall from the cactus in whose shade he waits for the next rainy season to green up his island once more.  

As I crouch on the ground, Diego looks straight down at me…

…then gives me the tortoise dominance stance!

Laughing? I don’t think so.

As I get closer, he rises and slowly walks towards me, taking long strides so typical of his saddleback form.  I quickly change from a telephoto lens to a wide-angle, and crouch low to the ground for perspective.  This entices him to raise his head high and open his mouth wide, a typical giant tortoise dominance gesture.  I duck behind his cactus for a different view, and he follows.  We play this game for nearly an hour, until the rest of the team from the Darwin Station appears.  Although they keep a respectful distance, Diego’s demeanor changes instantly: he can count!  One person is intriguing, maybe entertaining even, but four’s a crowd.  And humans in a crowd tend to do undignified things to giant tortoises, like lift them to be weighed, or worse, turn them on their backs for a health check or blood sample.  Diego wastes no time: he turns tail and heads for the thickets — the spell is broken.  

But it is just the beginning of this tale with a happy ending …

Despite the broken edge to his shell (no doubt incurred during his long sea and land voyages last century), Diego still looks regal.


What is he thinking???

Diego’s full story, with all the details of how his species was saved, is available in article form
by writing to me for a customised manuscript and photo selection.
Meanwhile, please enjoy a visual stroll though Diego’s wild Española Island habitat
by scrolling through the images below.

Forever connected: Diego carries a GPS satellite transmitter with multi-year battery,  with his whereabouts beamed to a passing satellite every few hours.

Majestic in his old age, Diego is likely to be over a century old.

An Española Ground Finch finds a convenient perch.

When the Darwin Station team arrives, Diego senses trouble: too many people …
… and he unceremoniously  heads for the thickets (below)

Española is one of the driest islands in Galapagos, a brutal environment for a large herbivore, even a reptile.

Galápagos Verde 2050 is an ecological restoration project run by the Charles Darwin Research Station to hasten the recovery of the giant cactus forest that was once ravaged by feral goats. Although the introduced herbivores were exterminated, the trees are slow to grow back.

The formidable spiny defence of young cacti defy even the most determined tortoise, growing softer pads as they get taller. Despite his impressive stature, Diego cannot quite reach a tantalizingly low-hanging pad.  Darwin’s finches and Galapagos doves also
rely on the water stored in juicy cactus pads.

A frail old female deposits her eggs in the breeding pen, one of her last captive laid clutches before being repatriated along with Diego, seen here in his breeding pen 15 years ago.  A baby Española tortoise hatching in 2007 at the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Breeding Center, a program managed by the Galapagos National Park.

It took 50 years of captive breeding to bring the wild population on Española to over 2,000, which are now reproducing on their own.

Each adult male tortoise takes ownership of a giant cactus, which it defends against all comers as it offers the only hope of moisture in its fallen pads and fruit.  All the captive-bred tortoises on Española are micro-chipped, with each individual  regularly monitored by the Galapagos National Park Directorate.

Hatched in captivity, this prime adult male is the descendant of just 15 old survivors, three males (Diego included) and 12 females.  But, despite being hand-fed in captivity for their first few years of life, once back on their island, Española tortoises distrust people, quickly turning tail when approached.

For more information on Giant Tortoise Conservation, please refer to the following links: 

Charles Darwin Research Station: 

Galapagos Conservancy:  

Galapagos Conservation Trust:

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Photos and information appearing on this site are copyrighted. © Tui De Roy / Roving Tortoise Photos 

Its components cannot be shared, reproduced or reused in any way. 

Please contact me for any reuse licenses.  Thank you for your understanding.

All rights reserved. 

Photos and information appearing on this site are copyrighted. © Tui De Roy / Roving Tortoise Photos 

Its components cannot be shared, reproduced or reused in any way. 

Please contact me for any reuse licenses.  Thank you for your understanding.