Diego, a 100-Year-Old Galapagos Giant Tortoise Who Saved His Species, Will Be Released Back Into the Wild

After participating in a breeding program at the San Diego Zoo for almost eight decades, Diego, a 100-year-old Galapagos tortoise, will be released to his native Española Island in March.

During his time with the San Diego Zoo's program, Diego sired multiple progeny. He's believed to be the father of 40 percent of the 2,000 tortoises on Santa Cruz Island.

"He's contributed a large percentage to the lineage that we are returning to Española," Jorge Carrion, the director of the Galapagos National Parks, told France24.

That was a far cry from life on Española in the mid-1960s. Back then, only twelve female tortoises and two male tortoises of Diego's subspecies—chelonoidis hoodensis—existed on the island. Not only were there that few of the animals, their habitats were situated too far apart to facilitate breeding. That was when Diego was brought into the breeding program.

"About 1,800 tortoises have been returned to Española and now with natural reproduction we have approximately 2,000 tortoises," said Carrion. "This shows that they are able to grow, they are able to reproduce, they are able to develop."

Diego, a Galapagos Tortoise similar to the tortoises pictured in the above photo, will be released back to his native Española in March after successfully doubling the tortoise population for his subspecies. PABLO COZZAGLIO/AFP/Getty

Researchers believe that Diego was taken from Galapagos sometime during the 20th century, likely as part of a scientific expedition. At 175 pounds, 35 inches high, and five feet long from neck to tail, Diego has lived through a lot of world events in his lifetime. When he was first born, motion pictures were in their infancy, and the roaring twenties had just begun.

Researchers credit Diego with single-handedly saving his subspecies of tortoise through the breeding program. Now, after he undergoes a quarantine period which will ensure he won't carry any seed pods from the mainland to Española and spread non-native flora to the region, he'll be headed home.

"There's a feeling of happiness to have the possibility of returning that tortoise to his natural state," Carrion said.

Diego's story is a happy coda to a tale like Lonesome George's.

Lonesome George, a Pinta Galapagos Tortoise whose attempts at breeding in captivity came to naught, is believed to have been the last of his kind, his subspecies of tortoise having had its population devastated due to the deforestation of flora, brought on by the introduction of feral goats to the Island of Pinta.

Estimated to be over a hundred years old, George passed away in 2012 from what was determined to be natural causes. His body was later taxidermied and is now on display in New York's American Museum of Natural History.