Meeting Famous Galápagos Characters

Posted at 1:23 pm September 14, 2010 by Rick Schwartz

The entrance to Galapagos National Park

Read Rick’s previous post, Highlands of the Galápagos.

The headquarters of the Galápagos National Park (GNP), located on the island of Santa Cruz, houses not only the main breeding facility (which I will tell you more about later) but also a couple of famous characters.

Lonesome George

In the early 1970s, when Lonesome George was found on the island of Pinta, it was believed that there were no more tortoises of his subspecies alive. This was due in part to the mass hunting that took place by pirates, whalers, and merchants alike as they used the islands as a stopping point to gather food. It was also common in generations past to drop off goats onto these islands to be hunted for food later when the ships passed by again. For the tortoise, this was problematic because the goats became feral, reproducing and eating faster than the tortoise, and consequently, the tortoise population could not be sustained in the face of these rapid changes to their ecosystem.

A GNP worker brings food out for the tortoises.

Of course, finding Lonesome George was a positive moment for conservation efforts and a possible turning point for bringing this subspecies back from the very edge of extinction. Sadly, after an extensive search on Pinta and searching zoos around the world, no female of the same subspecies could be found. Thus, his name—Lonesome George—is in direct reference to being the last living member of his subspecies.

Seeing him there at the GNP headquarters, he seemed far from lonesome. He has at least two females living with him that I could see, and of course he has his human caretakers. In hopes of at least carrying on the genes of the tortoises of Pinta, Lonesome George was placed with two females from the neighboring Isabela. It is believed that the tortoises from the Wolf Volcano region of Isabela were very close in genetic makeup and thus may produce viable offspring that may be placed back on Pinta. Unfortunately, in the last 38 years that Lonesome George has resided at the GNP’s breeding facility, he has yet to successfully produce offspring with these females.


At the other end of the “repopulation spectrum” is Diego, who has fathered over 1,500 babies in the last 30+ years! Diego’s story is an outstanding example of how cooperation between different organizations can truly make a difference in saving wildlife.

In the 1970s, it was discovered that only 10 females and 2 males were left on the island of Espanola (formally known as Hood). They were gathered and brought to GNP headquarters for the breeding program. It was also discovered that in the 1930s, a male of this subspecies was brought to the San Diego Zoo. He was thriving well at the Zoo, but it was understood that in an effort to secure the future of the subspecies, he had a very important role to fill back at the breeding facility in the Galápagos Islands. With the joint efforts of the San Diego Zoo and the GNP, Diego made his way back to the Galápagos Islands in 1977 and has been happily fulfilling the role of number-one male breeder ever since! In fact, while we were there we heard from several guides and locals that he is known as “Super Diego,” or the less used but no less correct “macho,” as he has a history of being rather aggressive toward the other males.

I was told that at this time, the island of Espanola now has a population of the native subspecies that is thriving and even reproducing on its own. I was also told that this is very much due to the contributions of Super Diego. Of course, the local government ridding the island of the goats, rats, and other invasive creatures probably had a lot to do with it, too!

Having been able to spend a couple of days at the GNP headquarters, I recognized a familiar commitment to conservation. The efforts put into securing a safe future for these distinct ecosystems were highlighted by getting to know the stories of the past and the individuals behind those stories. Lonesome George and Diego are only two of the many that are part of the history and the future of the Galápagos Islands.

Rick Schwartz is a zookeeper and the San Diego Zoo’s ambassador.

Watch video about some of the Zoo’s Galápagos tortoises.

Watch video of the Zoo’s upcoming event, Reptilemania, happening September 16 to 19, 2010.

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5 Responses to “Meeting Famous Galápagos Characters”

  1. Mae was from NJ says:

    I was so excited to read that you saw Lonesome George and that he is well! Way, way back then, I heard about him and although I know tortoises live a long time, since so many years have past, I thought he might have already died. Glad to know that he has company and is cared for. Since he hasn’t mated with any of the females, can his sperm be collected for artificial insemination? Perhaps that is not done with reptiles?

    I hope to visit the Galapagos Islands next year and your blogs are such a treasure to read. Thank you.

  2. Lee in Vancouver says:

    I too have heard about Lonesome George for many, many years. Is there a guestimate of how old he is now? Diego has been around since the 1930″s so any idea of his actual age? It surely seems like he is doing everything he possibly can do to keep his subspecies from going extinct. Is there any fears of what may occur due to inbreeding since there were only 3 males and 10 females in the core breeding stock?

  3. Patricia Lenahan says:

    I “met” Lonesome George three years ago on a University of Chicago/National Geographic tour. I loved the Galapagos and the dedication to preservation of the endemic species. It is an awe-inspiring place. The curiosity the animals have about people, versus fear, is amazing…and scary at the same time when you realize how easy it would be to harm them. At one point, our trail was blocked by a sea lion who had just whelped her pup…the placenta was still visible. She had no fear of us, no guarding…nothing. We stepped around her and continued on our way. I worry about these animals and the damage we humans can do.

    The visit to the tortoises was amazing. I have some wonderful photos of Lonesome George and his “ladies” as well as of Diego and the others. I applaud the work of the GNP and continue to support them.

  4. Rose N says:

    Hi Rick, Your blogs are always enjoyable and very informative. It was a pleasure to read that the conservation efforts at the GNP have been successful.

    As I learn more and more about these tortoises, I am always surprised by the new information. For example, it was a surprise to find out that each tortoise has a distinct personality.

    On 9/12/2010 we had a wonderful visit at the new Galapagos Tortoise Exhibit. The keepers and narrators were very informative and gave us a whole new perspective on these magnificent gentle creatures. During our visit, we took some photos that we would like to share with anyone who has an interest in Galapagos Tortoises.

    The photos can be found at the following link:

    Thank you very much.

    Moderator’s note: Thanks for sharing photos of your visit, Rose. The tortoises are indeed wonderful!

  5. justin says:

    I was reading in a past months issue of zoonooz about these woderfull creatures and saw a place to send pictures to the zoo but i cant find this place now that i am looking for it any ideas

    Moderator’s note: The promotion you’re referring to has passed. However, if you have some cool photos of the Zoo you’d like to share, please post them on the Zoo’s Facebook page!