St Helena Online

Tag: Jonathan the tortoise

Jonathan’s birthday… what the tortoise never taught us

We hate to disappoint the newspaper readers of Holland, but Jonathan the Tortoise will not be celebrating his birthday on 7 February… regardless of what it may say on  the Wikipedia website.

Jonathan exact birth date. If it's on Wikipedia, it must be true...
Jonathan’s exact birth date. If it’s on Wikipedia, it must be true…

Since exact age of the oldest known living creature on the world can only be guessed at, it was hardly likely that his actual birthday would have been recorded.

So it was somewhat surprising when reporter Tim Kooijman got in touch to ask how the old boy would be celebrating it.

He planned to write a story for the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad. “I’ve noticed on Wikipedia that this coming Saturday is tortoise Jonathan’s birthday,” he wrote. “People here love stories about birthdays and animals.”

Sure enough, a side-panel on the online encyclopedia gave the old boy’s date of birth as 7 February 1832 (which is 159 years after the Dutch invaded St Helena).

Tim took it well when it was pointed out that Jonathan’s actual birthday couldn’t possibly be known. He did wonder, though, how the Daily Telegraph could have been taken in, with a website video that put his age at a confidently precise 183.

A quick check was made with Kerisha Stevens at the press office in The Castle, just to check this wasn’t some promotional thing.

“As far as we know Jonathan hasn’t been ‘allocated’ a birthday,” she replied. She wasn’t sure who was responsible for the Wikipedia entry.

Tim said he’d write a story for Algemeen Dagblad all the same, because it was quite amusing. And perhaps he did: it all looks Dutch to us.

Down in Jamestown, though, Independent editor Mike Olsson rather liked the idea. “If Wikipedia says it’s his birthday, then we’ll give him a birthday,” he said. He’d have a word with Joe Hollins, the vet who hand-feeds him once a week, and rubs his neck to help the food go down.

“We’ll give him a piece of lettuce, with a candle.”

What – just the one candle?

Watch the Telegraph video here

The day a tortoise turned turtle for the King of England

Flags flapped along the seafront as King George VI stepped ashore on St Helena… a small island, somewhere off the coast of France.

Quite a long way off, actually – and the same goes for the rest of the text that accompanies newly released archive footage of the royal visit.

One is left wondering whether it is possible to libel a tortoise.

Undiplomatic blunder: film notes put St Helena in France
Undiplomatic blunder: film notes put St Helena in France

The five-minute British Pathé news film, now made public on the YouTube website, shows the King and Queen stepping ashore at the wharf on 29 April 1947.

They were accompanied by the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.

The royal party are seen looking round Napoleon’s badly dilapidated home at Longwood, and then admiring Jonathan the tortoise on the governor’s lawn.

The King even crouches down to try to feed him a banana, which the old boy appears to treat with some disdain.

There is also brief footage of two unnamed young Saints showing the traditional technique for sliding down Jacob’s Ladder, at an impressive speed.

The film is silent – it would have been shown in cinemas with a scripted voice-over, and music – so viewers must rely on the accompanying text to learn what is going on in the pictures.

But the text isn’t too reliable. For one thing, it says the men are sliding down St Jacob’s Ladder.

And the location of the film is given as “St Helena, France”: a bit of a slip, given that the Queen was later to summon the French Ambassador to explain why his government had allowed Longwood House to fall into severe neglect.

But the greatest indignity is suffered by old Jonathan, who even in 1947 was considered impressively ancient.

The notes refer to “several shots of the royal family observing a giant turtle.”

Turtles are indeed found in the waters around St Helena, but they’re not often seen eating bananas on the governor’s lawn, a thousand feet or so above sea level.

Eventually the royal party make their way back to the landing steps, with several straw bonnets and pith helmets in evidence in the large crowd.

The royal party stopped at the island on their way back from South Africa, on their first overseas visit after the Second World War – as noted by future governor David Smallman in Quincentenary, his history of the island.

He says that the present Queen Elizabeth clearly remembered her first experience of arum lilies growing in the wild. She had celebrated her 21st birthday a week earlier.

As the royal party prepared to leave the island, His Majesty told the crowd: “This is the first occasion on a which a reigning Sovereign has ever set foot on St Helena.

“I wish to tell you how much the Queen and I, and our daughters, have enjoyed our brief visit.

“We wish you all prosperity in the future.”

Mr Smallman also notes that the Queen’s remonstrations led to the posting of a French official to care for the Napoleonic properties on St Helena.

The online notes record that the film ends with “more daytime shots of the royal party looking around from the deck” of HMS Vanguard.

Hmmm – nice beaches. That looks a bit like Ascension…

The text accompanying footage on YouTube
The text accompanying footage on YouTube

Click here to watch the British Pathé news film

Royalty on St Helena – in David Smallman’s book, Quincentenary
Reflections on a Journey to St Helena – pictures of the royal visit

When Jonathan met Sally – and the story went global


Jonathan stares at the camera, beak open wide
Jonathan the tortoise, pictured by Guy Gatien

The BBC’s prestigious From Our Own Correspondent programme evidently has a fascination for St Helena: the island has featured on it at least four times in the space of five years. Judged against the size of the island’s population, this might make it – unofficially – the most interesting place on the planet, in the eyes of one BBC editor, at least.

Strange, then, that the BBC refused to answer a Freedom of Information request a couple of years ago, asking how many programmes it had recorded on St Helena in the 80-plus years of the corporation’s existence.

It claimed the matter was editorially sensitive, but it may well be that it didn’t want to admit that the answer, as far as anyone can recall, would be “none”. Foreign and independent documentary crews have been out, but Britain’s state broadcaster has not done so well.

From Our Own Correspondent, though, has enjoyed rich pickings from the island – this time, with a piece on Jonathan the tortoise, the world’s oldest known living creature.

The full text of Sally Kettle’s piece was published in the St Helena Independent on 14 March 2014 and can be found on her website.

Sally achieved the distinction of having an extract played on BBC Radio 4’s Pick Of The Week programme a couple of days later, when it was introduced with the question, How can you tell whether a 200-year-old tortoise is happy?

Jonathan’s age dropped to a mere 182 in the piece itself (leaving aside the fact that his exact age isn’t known; he could be 20 years younger).

It was Sally’s passionate delivery of her script that really stood out. Click here to listen.

She describes watching Joe the Vet feed Jonathan, whose blindness and blunted beak have made it difficult to find food for himself – but whose greedy hunger almost cost Joe the tip of a finger on one occasion. 

As often reported, the old boy has no difficulty mating, producing what Joe calls “a noise like a loud, harsh escape of steam from a giant battered old kettle, often rounded off with a deep oboe-like grunt.”

Sally reports that her piece was picked up “like crazy” on Twitter, the micro-blogging site.

Her website also includes an interview with the St Helena Wirebird, in which she talks about the visit she made (at two weeks’ notice) to film a documentary about St Helena, Tristan da Cunha and Ascension.

She says she can see the benefits of the island’s airport project, including medical support, work opportunities and tourism.

“But I can also appreciate the drawbacks that are perhaps difficult for outsiders to understand,” she says. “I spoke to the head girl at Prince Andrew School and she explained her reticence. She told me that the voyage on the RMS prepares you for the gentleness of the island; it gives you time to think about the journey and appreciate the remoteness the islanders’ experience. When tourists arrive on the plane they will just step off without that appreciation. I can see her point. The trouble is the airport is coming, and I’m not sure everyone is prepared for it.”

Carnival catcall echoes round the world – St Helena on From Our Own Correspondent
Jonathan the Tortoise on From Our Own Correspondent
Sally Kettle website
Rower Sally heads for islands (the easy way)

Games baton approaches: no need to get sniffy, Jonathan


It’s too bad that Jonathan the tortoise no longer has much of a sense of smell. The Commonwealth Games baton is to arrive on St Helena on 19 February 2014, and it might well carry, to the well-tuned nose, the faint whiff of a giant tortoise.

Which would doubtless make an interesting change from the aroma of the other giant tortoises that share a paddock at Plantation House with Jonathan, the oldest known living creature on the planet.

It has been the custom, in past years, for the baton to be presented for Jonathan’s approval. The Games wouldn’t be the same without it.

Jonathan, pictured by Guy Gatien
Jonathan, pictured by Guy Gatien

But this time, some other tortoises got there first – and in the Seychelles, of all places, which happens to be where Jonathan comes from.

The diplomatic slight is revealed in a press release marking the half-way mark in the baton’s journey through 70 nations and territories of the Commonwealth, en route to Glasgow.

“Tt’s been taken diving in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, paraded by elephants in Sri Lanka and sniffed by giant tortoises in the Seychelles,” says the release.

It’s also been carried to the top of the tallest building in Oceania, and honoured with a national holiday in the island nation of Nauru.

  • Animals met along the way include Koalas in Australia, and tigers in Kenya.
  • It has travelled in a 19th Century steam train in Sri Lanka, motorised tricycles in Australia, and an outrigger canoe in Kiribati.
Jonathan with a past Games baton
Jonathan with a past Games baton

“The baton has visited some of the most remote regions in the world,” say the relay organisers, “including Kavieng, in Papua New Guinea, Tarawa Island in Kiribati, and the island nation of Niue, which is only connected by one weekly flight.

“Highlights of the international journey of the baton include a historic first visit to Rwanda, the youngest member of the Commonwealth, and – still to come – the last-ever baton sail to St Helena, in the South Atlantic, as the Royal Mail Ship will soon be replaced by an air link to the island.”

The baton will be on the island from 19 to 21 February, during which time it will be carried up Jacob’s Ladder. Its full schedule is still being finalised, according to the St Helena Tourism newsletter.

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 22.12.58

Visit the Commonwealth Games website here

After 150-plus years, Gentleman Jonathan gets his privacy

That’s close enough: an island visitor with one of St Helena’s younger tortoises. In future, they’ll be fenced off

St Helena’s “creakingly old national treasure,” Jonathan the tortoise, will soon be protected from over-enthusiastic tourists, in an effort to extend the long life of the oldest known creature in the world. Work has started on building a fenced walkway at Plantation House to protect its tortoises. 

by St Helena Government writer 

Tortoises are sensitive creatures and, as we all know, Jonathan is getting very old, having famously exceeded his life expectancy of 150 years by probably 30 years or more.

Classic view: Plantation House and distinguished residents

At this great age, his senses and ability to eat are impaired, and we can consider him to be a rather frail old gentleman – one who has good and bad days.

We wish to do everything possible to extend the latter part of Jonathan’s life by protecting his welfare and ensuring that he is not disturbed and stressed.

Unfortunately, this can happen when tour groups all-too-frequently ignore the “two-metre rule” to get that once-in-a-lifetime snapshot with the oldest known living animal on the planet.

Properly caring for Jonathan and his friends means that we must restrict access. As increasing numbers of visitors to the island will naturally wish to see Plantation and St Helena’s most famous animal resident, the impact on the paddock – the tortoise habitat – will become untenable.

Plantation, the tortoises and the paddock are a great asset to tourism and highly photogenic, so we are providing a fenced path that will give fine views across the paddock to the house.

It will also link visitors to the popular forest paths.

The plan has been put together to improve visibility of all five tortoises right across the length of the new walkway.

The new layout has been designed to satisfy visitors while meeting the welfare needs of St Helena’s creakingly old national treasure and his colleagues, David, Emma, Fredrika and Myrtle.

The Great Survivor: how Jonathan turned out not to be extinct
Tortoise Tales

Death of Lonesome George is a bleak warning for St Helena

Lonesome George, the last of his kind. Picture: Jean Spector/fotopedia

The death of a giant tortoise in the Galapagos Islands gives a gloomy foretaste of the sadness to come when St Helena’s best-loved inhabitant passes on.

Preparations have begun in readiness for the day when Jonathan the tortoise, the oldest known creature in the world, finally dies. He is at least 160 years old, but the hope is that his death is still some years away.

The island’s government is bracing itself for global media interest. But a report for the BBC suggests it may be the people of St Helena who need sensitive handling.

Henry Nicholls says a shadow has hung over the Galapagos Islands since the death in June of Lonesome George, the last of his species.

In a dispatch for the From Our Own Correspondent programme, he tells how Marilyn Cruz, a government vet, had to perform an autopsy on the giant tortoise.

Jonathan: no hurry to depart his life. Picture: Guy Gatien

The same will be done for Jonathan under the plans being drawn up.

“I felt a confusion of emotions,” the vet told Nicholls. She felt great sadness at the loss of this national treasure, but had to put sentiment aside, pick up an electric saw, and start cutting.

“It was not something I wanted to do, but it was something that had to be done.”

Nicholls found Lonesome George depicted in jewellery and souvenirs all along Puerto Ayora’s main street.

He also met Fausto Llerena, whose career as a ranger in the Galapagos National Park had been “largely defined” by Lonesome George:

“He looked after him, day-in-day-out, for 40 years and it was Fausto Llerena who found him dead at the end of June…

“It is only towards the end of our conversation that his emotions get the better of him and his upper lip begins to tremble.

“He was my best friend,” he says.

Tortoise tales – St Helena Online stories about Jonathan the Tortoise

Giant tortoise death casts shadow over Galapagos Islands – BBC

Sculpture could help Jonathan live on for centuries

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

Jonathan stares at the camera, beak open wide

Keep your distance, please: Jonathan gets some privacy

Jonathan stares at the camera, beak open wide
Oi! I was here first! Jonathan the tortoise, pictured by Guy Gatien

The paddock that has been home to St Helena’s oldest resident for more than 100 years is to be given a makeover. The island’s planning board has given approval for new fencing to protect Jonathan, one of the world’s last surviving Seychelles Giant tortoises, from the attentions of over-intrusive visitors at Plantation House.

Planning board member Vince Thompson said: “The new fencing will do away with the kissing gate which people used to pass through to get a closer look at the Jonathan.  Now they have to stand at a distance.”

Jonathan’s age has been calculated at between 160 and 180, meaning he has already exceeded his life expectancy by at least a decade. Joe Hollins, the island vet, said being swamped by visitors could be “too much” for him.

The planning board also approved a new shelter for St Helena’s donkey sanctuary, and the siting of containers and a sign for a recycling centre to be run by SHAPE, the island charity providing disabled people with work.

FEATURE: Jonathan the tortoise: a slow heart-throb keeps on going
FEATURE: The great survivor: how Jonathan turned out not to be extinct

Love nest planned for the oldest old romantic in the world

Jonathan extends his neck, side on to the camera
Jonathan the giant tortoise: fond of necking. Picture by Guy Gatien

Jonathan the tortoise may still have the energy for romantic love-ins with his young lady companions, but it seems the attention of tourists on St Helena may be too much for him.

Despite the evidence of his lively libido, there are concerns for the health of the giant tortoise – the oldest known living creature on Earth.

As a result, proposals have been drawn up for changes to the paddock shared by the five giant tortoises at Plantation House.

On Wednesday 11 July 2012, the island’s planning board considers an application for new fencing arrangements at the historic house.

Details of planning applications on St Helena are not routinely published on the internet but island vet Joe Hollins has welcomed news that his advice appears to have been put into effect.

He said: “Done tastefully it’ll be a great solution to the paddock issue – providing access and good views, but without impairing the heritage and harming the tortoises.

FEATURE: Jonathan the tortoise: a slow heart-throb keeps on going: 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. Even so, keeping him alive well beyond his natural span is a challenge.
FEATURE: The great survivor: how Jonathan turned out not to be extinct

Lonesome George, the giant tortoise, dies in Galapagos – June 2012
Planning board agenda 11 July 2012 (Word document)