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Sculpture could help Jonathan live on for centuries

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Tortoise carving takes place in white Portland stone in old quarry, with rocks and sea beyond
A giant tortoise sculpture takes shape on Portland, an island with a link to St Helena

A life-sized bronze sculpture of Jonathan the tortoise has been proposed to commemorate the life of St Helena’s oldest resident.

But there is another possibility: a stone carving.

Coral-like carving with tortoise behind
Extinct plants and animals are being recorded in stone on the Isle of Portland

Lonesome George, the last of the world’s giant Pinto Island tortoises, who died earlier this year, is currently being immortalised in stone on the Isle of Portland, in the UK.

Commissioning a Portland stone sculpture of Jonathan would also mark St Helena’s link with the Dorset island, where the RMS St Helena docked for several years on trips to the UK.

The connection came to an end when the ship made its last voyage north in October 2011.

Portland stone has been used in some of the finest buildings in London, and the island’s abandoned quarries have been now been taken over by sculptors. The stone is very durable and can be rubbed smooth.

The sculture of Lonesome George is one of the first to be started as part of a “mass extinction monitoring observatory” on Portland. It is being set up to record 860 species that have vanished from the Earth since the dodo was wiped out 350 years ago.

A pile of stone blocks forms a bridge across the cliff path on Portland
The Isle of Portland is renowned for its stone

On St Helena, plans are being drawn up to prepare for the passing of Jonathan, the oldest known living creature in the world. They include commissioning the statue, and displaying his shell in the museum in Jamestown.

Creating a sculpture in bronze involves modelling it in clay, which is then clad in plaster to form a mould.

A wax cast is made, and packed in sand. Molten bronze is then poured in to the sand, taking the place of the wax as it melts.

The process has changed little in hundreds of years.

A stone carving might not gleam as much as a bronze sculpture. But it may make it feasible for a craftsman to complete the work on the island, where people would be able to watch progress.

Two girls walk past statue of the giant tortoise
A sculture could last even longer than Jonathan himself

Jonathan’s exact age is not known but it is believed to be between 160 and 180 years. Life expectancy for his species is only 150 years.

Vet Joe Hollins said: “He’s an interesting old fellow, still quite strong, but I have identified a clutch of age-related problems which I am addressing to try and extend his longevity even further.

“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.”

Even if bronze remains the favoured option, it is possible that Jonathan will be carved in Portland stone anyway.

Joe has discovered he is one of only a very few surviving Seychelles Giant tortoises. At one time, it was believed the species was already extinct.

If he can hang on a few more years, he may turn out to be the very last of his kind – meaning he could end up alongside Lonesome George in the extinction memorial on Portland.


Why PORTLAND stone?  Why not local stone?John Turner, St Helena

Response: Good point – but how durable is local stone? And how free of holes, cracks, blemishes and fragments of other stone? Arguably, the stone should come from the Seychelles, like Jonathan himself. It’s academic, though, if the favoured choice is bronze – Simon, editor

St Helena Olive turns to stone in island’s extinction project
The great survivor: how Jonathan turned out not to be extinct

The Memo Project

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