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.
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. 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.
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