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Diego Free
Diego Returns to the Wild after Saving His Species | Photo Courtesy of Galapagos National Park Directorate
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June 26, 2020
Charismatic Diego: Media Darling Charismatic Diego: Media Darling Charismatic Diego: Media Darling


Just google "Diego" and "tortoise" and you'll see an amazing phenomenon. At the time of this writing, Diego the Tortoise had over 4 million pertinent links as catalogued by Google. But why should a mere tortoise get so much media attention?

Well, his story is certainly moving. It strikes one initially as highly unlikely and one finds oneself asking, "How is this possible?" Indeed, what are the odds that a tortoise would be (1) Taken from the wild (2) Exhibited in zoos for the next 40 years (3) Shipped to a captive breeding program to restore an entire species from only 15 individuals left in the entire world (4) Responsible for producing somewhere between eight and nine hundred sons and daughters over the next 47 years (representing a whopping 40% of all offspring produced by the program) and then be (5) Returned to his island of origin to pick up where he left off 87 years previously to live once again as a wild tortoise?

True, that in itself is impressive. But with the exception of the "zoo" part and the 40% part, this same story applies to all the other 14 individuals in the same captive breeding program. Consider, too, that while Diego may have been responsible for 40% of the program's offspring, another male tortoise, named simply "E5" was actually responsible for the remaining 60%! And suddenly one finds oneself wondering why Diego would be the one singled out for all the media attention.

In the end, the answer to that question seems to be nothing more nor less than "personality." But do reptiles truly have such recognizably different personalities? Apparently, so.

In an interview with Aimee Ortiz for her New York Times Article, James P. Gibbs, professor of environmental and forest biology at the State University of New York in Syracuse, said,

[Diego has] a big personality — quite aggressive, active and vocal in his mating habits and so I think he has gotten most of the attention. But it clearly is the other quieter male that has had much more success... Maybe he prefers to mate more at night. It might come as a surprise to many but tortoises do form what we would call 'relationships.' The social hierarchies and relationships of giant tortoises are very poorly known.”

Jorge Carrión Tacuri, director of the Galapagos National Park back in January of 2020 who was also interviewed for the same NY Times article added that

Without a doubt, Diego had some characteristics that made him special."

Fausto Llerena, a ranger with the Galapagos National Park, became well-known in his own right as being the primary keeper of another iconic tortoise from a different island, Lonesome George. Llerena's devotion to George and to conservation in general were recognized when the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island decided to name their giant tortoise breeding center the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Llerena also became one of Diego's keepers. This put him in a unique position to observe the personality of both media icons. In a video by the San Diego Zoo, Llerena says of Diego that

He recognizes us. When you enter the corral, he'll follow you around, raising his head and opening his mouth in greeting. Mostly he's friendly with people. He's always close to the wall where he can be easily seen by guests."

Compare that to Llerena's description of Lonesome George's personality in the 2012 Mongabay news article by Alejandra Martins. Llerena describes George as having a "complex personality."

[He only] accepted up to three people in his pen at the same time, otherwise he withdrew to a quiet place. When I was there alone was when he stayed longer."

So is it going too far to say that individual tortoises have recognizably different personalities? And no, I don't think so. But you be the judge. Below I'm linking to various media devoted to Diego. And I guess the question to ask is, has any other tortoise ever received media attention quite like this?

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