San Diego Zoo founder Dr. Harry Wegeforth was a self-described “turtle and tortoise man.” He was fascinated with the long-lived reptiles, and brought unusual species back to the Zoo from his travels. In 1928, he wistfully told his visiting colleague Dr. Townsend of the New York Zoological Society that he was “always wanting turtles.” Dr. Townsend said he’d take a look at the Zoo’s turtles and see what he might be able to supply. He was soon back in Wegeforth’s office saying, “You rascal! This is the finest collection of turtles I’ve seen just about anywhere!”
Nonetheless, he told Wegeforth he would bring him some rare species: Galapagos tortoises. Over the course of two expeditions, one in 1928 and one in 1933, the San Diego Zoo received a herd of both young tortoises and some that were already full-sized adults. One of them was named Diego, from the Galapagos Island of Española.
Many years later, in the 1960s, the Galapagos tortoises of Española Island were declared critically endangered. The remaining 2 males and 12 females of the wild population were brought to the Charles Darwin Research Station for protection. A search also took place, looking for tortoises from this island in zoos—which led to Diego. As one of only three remaining males, he could make a significant contribution to saving the species. The San Diego Zoo was glad to return him to his native land in 1977, where he joined his fellow Española tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station.
Diego soon proved his worth. He fathered several clutches of baby tortoises within a couple of years. And since then, you could say he has dedicated himself to the survival of his species. Estimates indicate he has about 1,700 offspring—and he’s still going strong today at the estimated age of 130!