His great age means he can barely see or smell the grass, and his beak is so blunt he has to be fed by hand. But Jonathan, the oldest known creature in the world, enjoys a vigorous private life.
St Helena’s celebrated giant tortoise may be 160 years old – or is it 180? – but the sound of his exertions can regularly be heard echoing off the walls of Plantation House, the home he graciously shares with St Helena’s governor.
As the poet D H Lawrence put it, it helps to pass the time:
The tortoise eternity,
Age long, reptilian persistence,
Heart-throb, slow heart-throb, persistent for the…
Well, you get the thrust of it.
The oldest of St Helena’s five giant tortoise goes about his recreation “very noisily,” according to Joe The Vet (Joe Hollins), “and is very fond of the littlest female”.
Joe is every bit as relieved as Jonathan. “In truth, libido is one of the first things to suffer with ill health, so it’s a good sign.”
Impressive though the old boy’s performance may be, he probably deserves a little privacy after all these years. But it is not a desire to spare a tortoise’s blushes that has prompted a request to the island’s planning board.
It seeks approval for “alteration to Existing Fence/Gates and New Fence, Plantation House Paddock”. No further detail is provided.
It’s an unlikely spin-off from the building of the island’s first airport. The fear is that if planeloads of tourists jostle for their moment with Jonathan, it will simply be too much for the old chap. Assuming he lives that long.
“We’ve had issues with the cruise ship passengers inevitably pushing the boundaries and clambering around Jonathan,” said Joe.
“If indeed we do eventually get 600 tourists per week – or even half that – the incursions at Plantation would be too great. Ultimately access would have to be limited to a viewing area to view the frontage of the house and the tortoises.
“Done tastefully, it’ll be a great solution to the paddock issue – providing access and good views, but without impairing the heritage and molesting the tortoises.
“I have to say that Saints are very good and respectful in the way they approach Jonathan. But tourists will always try to push the limits for that family photo album shot of ‘Me and the Oldest Known Animal in the World’.
“It’s understandable, but we have to control it.”
A temporary viewing area has already been set up on cruise ship days, and at quieter times, admirers are asked to stay at least two metres away.
A notice now sets out rules for visitors:
- behave quietly and keep children under control;
- keep all dogs on a leash
- remove all litter – leave nothing but your footprints
- do not disturb the tortoises when asleep- visit only during daylight hours
“The general public are still welcome to admire and photograph the tortoises,” says the notice, “but please observe the two-metre rule. Jonathan has exceeded his life expectancy and we want to do everything to prolong his latter years.”
So just how old is the world’s oldest known living creature?
When the newspapers got hold of the idea that Jonathan the tortoise might be the oldest living creature on the planet, he also became the best-known tortoise on the planet.
The Sun headlined its story, Old-Age Mutant Swinger Tortoise.
What got them going was a photograph that turned up in an auction in the UK, showing a Boer War prisoner and his Saint guard with one of three giant tortoises that had come to the island in 1882.
But was the one in the picture really Jonathan? Not for the first time, the story sparked a flurry of learned letters in the St Helena Independent, speculating about whether Jonathan was on the island at the time, and when he was fully grown.
Joe the Vet – real name Jonathan, incidentally – takes up the story:
“He’s 160-180 years old (based on 1882 – IF he was full-sized then, he was at least 50. Trouble is, I’ve found no documentary proof that he was full-size).
“But I have a picture of him 1902 with a Boer prisoner. I have compared scute [shell] pattern and skyline of his humps to prove it is indeed him, and he is full size – so that would be the bottom estimate of 160.
“Life expectancy is 150 years – he may be extended by the cool winters.
“Health wise he is doing well, but I have learnt a few things.
“He feels the cold more than David [the other male tortoise], his size equal not his age equal, and is indeed ‘thinner’. Sounds odd? Not really – you estimate the fleshiness of a tortoise by feeling into his leg cavities and checking the girth of the leg muscle.
“This is inevitable because he is so old. But fat is not only a food store for winter, it is insulation.
“He is also blind – it’s well known he has cataracts – and has a poor sense of smell. In addition his beak is blunt except for the tip (David’s consists of razor-sharp mini scythes made of keratin for cutting the grass).
“Net effect: he’s an inefficient grazer, a bit random, and can’t smell, see, then eat.
“He still has a good appetite though. So once a week, I hand-feed him a deep bowl of slightly more calorific foods. I’ve sought advice on this and you mustn’t overdo it: an excess of the ‘good stuff’ like fruit and veggies can provoke serious or fatal diarrhoea.
“They’re designed for sun-scorched grass and shrubs, mangrove swamps and hot coral sand beaches. But I’m essentially topping up his calories to compensate for his inefficiency, in the hope that it’ll help him ride out winter better, the risk period.
“And there we are – for the next 50 years!
“In truth he could die any day, but we obviously hope to extend his life as much as humanely possible. When the day comes, it will be an international news story.”
- Jonathan’s passing may also bring the end of an entire species of tortoise. Research by Joe Hollins established that unlike his four companions at Plantation House, Jonathan may be one of the last survivors of a distinct species that had been thought to be extinct, as a result of hunting. Joe wrote about his discovery in an article for the island media in 2011. Read it here.