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Diego, the giant turtle that saved his species from extinction, has regained freedom on its original island in the Galapagos archipelago, Ecuadorian Environment Minister Paulo Proaño announced on Monday.
“We are closing an important chapter in the management of the Galapagos park, 15 turtles from Española, including Diego, are returning home after decades of breeding in captivity to save their species from extinction,” the minister tweeted.
Accompanied by fourteen other breeding adults, Diego, a centenary male of the species Chelonoidis hoodensis, was repatriated to the deserted island of Española by employees of the Galapagos National Park (PNG).
The animals were transported by boat from the island of Santa Cruz, where Diego spent 40 years in captivity as part of a breeding program.
The return, originally scheduled for March, has been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Diego, who weighs 80 kg and is 1.5 meters tall, was taken to the United States in the first half of the 20th century, before the Galapagos Archipelago was declared a nature reserve in 1959.
He notably spent thirty years at the San Diego Zoo (southwest) which gave him his name. He was then repatriated in 1976 to the Galapagos Islands where he shared his daily life with several females in a PNG tortoise breeding center in Puerto Ayora, the capital of the island Santa Cruz.
Sexually very active, Diego managed to save his species from the danger of extinction by single-handedly generating at least 40% of the baby turtles that have since grown up on Española Island.
The island of Española now has around 2000 individuals of this species, including 200 born in the wild.
Of the fifteen species of giant turtles that inhabit the Galapagos, listed as World Heritage by Unesco, three have disappeared under the effect of pirate attacks and looting by crews including whaling ships in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Ecuadorian archipelago, which has a flora and fauna unique in the world, served as a natural laboratory for English scientist Charles Darwin for his theory on the evolution of species.