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7 Wonders of St Helena – Jonathan the Tortoise, the oldest Saint

 

Jonathan is St Helena’s oldest resident, by far. It is estimated that Jonathan is between 170 and 200 years old, making him not just St Helena’s oldest Saint, but quite possibly the world’s oldest reptile. This year he has been selected by St Helena as one of the island’s 7 Wonders.

There are four tortoises at Plantation House, the Governor’s residence: Jonathan, who it is thought arrived in 1882, David and Emma in 1969 and Fredrika, in 1972.

Tortoises welcoming visitors to Plantation

 

Professor Arthur Lovebridge lived on St Helena for many years, and in 1962 gave a scientific account of Plantation’s tortoises, focusing on Jonathan’s age. Lovebridge concluded that Jonathan arrived on the island in 1882, but was unsure as to the age of Jonathan when he was landed at the island. Photographic evidence of Jonathan and consequent analysis of his shell size and growth could put him at already around fifty years old when he arrived. Assuming 50 years, Jonathan would now be 186 years old. The life expectancy of a giant tortoise is approximately 150 years or thereabouts.

These majestic tortoises, set against the splendour of Plantation House are an important tourist attraction for St Helena. The fact that Jonathan may also be a member of an almost extinct species, the Seychelles Giant Tortoise, as opposed to the relatively numerous Aldabra Giant Tortoise, gives him additional pulling power.

Did you know:

  • Jonathan was only named in the 1930’s by Sir Spencer Davis, Governor of the island between 1932-36.
  • It is estimated that Jonathan has seen over 30 of St Helena’s Governors throughout his years at Plantation.
  • The sex of an adult tortoise is indicated by its plastron (lower shell). Posteriorly, this is noticeably concave in a male; in a female the plastron is flat, being used for tamping down the earth on the site where she is to bury her eggs.
  • Jonathan’s sight and hearing are diminishing, so is Jonathan’s ability to tear and chew with his horny beak (tortoises don’t have teeth). So Joe Hollins, St Helena’s only vet, hand feeds Jonathan regularly.
  • Jonathan needs to be able to bathe in water (or mud) to keep cool. Giant tortoises will go into water if it’s too hot, or too cold.
  • Giant tortoises dislike long grass (over 30cm) and will happily graze short grass down to 1 or 2cm.

Jonathan and Plantation House

 

There are two distinct populations of giant tortoise in the world, those of the Galapagos archipelago, and those of the scattered islands of the Indian Ocean. Of the many species of giant tortoise that used to exist in the Indian Ocean, all but one have been made extinct by man, harvesting the tortoises for meat. This was considered to be the case until 1997.

In 1997 the Nature Protection Trust of Seychelles, launched a worldwide search of private and public collections, and rediscovered two of the species formally considered extinct. Jonathan has been identified as a Seychelles Giant Tortoise, Dipsochelys hololissa. As such he is a solitary example of a handful of survivors existing in the world.

That Jonathan was on the island during Napoleon’s exile is untrue. This myth is debunked by records of a female tortoise that died in 1877. If not this female, there was another that died in 1918.

Plantation House is open for tours every Tuesday at 11am with a special opportunity to step into the paddock and take a selfie with Jonathan – as long as you don’t touch! Take a walk through the island’s history and meet the Jonathan, possibly the oldest living animal in the world.

Jonathan the tortoise St Helena

Jonathan made headlines in 2016 after adapting a new diet. Read more about it here.

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