Dear Readers, I have always had a great fondness for tortoises. When my grandmother was growing up she had a pet tortoise that was very fond of strawberries. If he thought that they were on the menu he would scurry (in a rather undignified manner) up the garden path, and if the kitchen door was shut he would bang on it with his shell until someone opened the door. In those days, no one thought about how many tortoises were being ‘harvested’ from places like Greece, and how few of them actually survived their journey to the pet shop. These days, the pet trade is rather more strictly controlled, and, given how slowly tortoises grow to maturity, this can only be a good thing.
And back in 2000, when I was fifty, we made a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Galapagos Islands, home to many, many giant tortoises. We visited the scientific research station where some of the subspecies of giant tortoises are bred, and watched as the youngsters were introduced to the tricky volcanic terrain of their home islands in a series of compounds of increasing difficulty. It was important that they built up their balancing skills, and their muscles, so that they could cope with whatever nature throws at them. I will never forget their determined, plucky attitude as they climbed and clambered over rocks and undergrowth. You could imagine them gritting their teeth and getting on with it.
And so, given my love for all things tortoise-related, I was particularly pleased to see that today, Sunday 4th December, is the (official) 190th birthday of Jonathan the Seychelles Giant Tortoise. He was gifted to the governor of Saint Helena, a small island in the middle of the Atlantic in 1882, and he was pretty large then, giving him an estimated birth date of 1832. Although he has cataracts and seems to have lost his sense of smell, he still has very acute hearing, and a few years ago he was given a new diet, which seems to have included such items as tasty watermelon and grapes, guava and banana.
Back in the 1990s, Jonathan was introduced to Frederica, another Seychelles Giant Tortoise, and, as The Guardian coyly puts it, they ‘developed an intimate relationship’. However, the patter of tiny tortoise feet never happened and it wasn’t until 26 years later, when Frederica was examined by a vet, that it was discovered that Frederica was probably a male. Nonetheless, the two tortoises are devoted to one another – the vet noted that Jonathan toddled over during the examination and wouldn’t leave his mate’s side. Love is love, after all.
Jonathan and the other tortoises still live in the grounds of Plantation House on St Helena, and there are three days of celebration planned for his birthday, including a tortoise-friendly birthday cake, an animated film about his life, and some special stamps. He currently features on the back of the Saint Helena 5 pence coin.
Although Jonathan is probably the world’s longest living land animal, another giant tortoise, Adwaita, was rumoured to be 255 years old when he died in Kolkata Zoo in 2006. He was said to have been gifted to Clive of India after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, and arrived at the Zoo in 1875. Sadly, the record has never been verified, so Jonathan currently holds the record. It is astonishing to think that he has lived through the Victorian and Elizabethan ages, with all the changes that they’ve wrought. What a venerable being he is! I hope he enjoys his birthday celebrations.