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BBC News - Meet Jonathan, St Helena's 182-year-old giant tor

BBC News - Meet Jonathan, St Helena's 182-year-old giant tortoise
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12 March 2014 Last updated at 21:04 ET
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Meet Jonathan, St Helena's 182-year-old
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Our world is full of weird and wonderful creatures, many of which
amaze scientists and non-scientists, alike. But is it true that a
living tortoise could have started its life in the first half of the
19th Century?
Plantation House in St Helena sits proud amid gumwood trees alive with
chirps and whistles.
It is the official residence of Mark Capes, Governor of the British
Overseas Territories in the South Atlantic. I have not come to see the
governor, nor the large brown hillocks which dot the pristine lawns.
It's only when my guide Joe Hollis, the sole vet on the island, bangs on a
large metal bowl, that all becomes clear. The hillocks rise and trot
surprisingly swiftly towards us.
Meet Jonathan, Myrtle and Fredrika, three of five giant tortoises who live
on St Helena. Their shy friends David and Emma are hiding in the rough.
"He is virtually blind from cataracts, has no sense of smell - but his
hearing is good," Joe tells me. At 182, Jonathan may be the oldest living
land creature.
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BBC News - Meet Jonathan, St Helena's 182-year-old giant tortoise
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Jonathan, a Boer War prisoner, and a guard, around 1900
Jonathan is a rare Seychelles Giant. His lawn-fellows hail from the
Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean. Aldabra Giants number about 100,000,
but only one small breeding population of Seychelles tortoises exists.
St Helena was born as a violent volcano, and
along with Ascension and Tristan du Cunha in
the South Atlantic, is famed for its isolation and
close-knit society. Jamestown, its capital,
became a centre of commerce for the East India
Company in the 17th Century.
From Our Own Correspondent
The Travel Show
Why do millions more people visit the Canadian side of
Niagara Falls?
Many victims of the slave trade - sick and dying
- would spend their final hours on the shores of
St Helena. And then there was Napoleon, in
Its inhabitants, known as Saints, share this
complex past, and ethnic traits of Africans,
Americans, Europeans and Chinese.
Nobody knows why Jonathan ended up in St
Insight and analysis from BBC correspondents,
journalists and writers from around the world
Broadcast on Radio 4 and BBC World Service
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During the 17th Century ships could contain
hundreds of easily-stacked tortoises, like a fastfood takeaway. In the Galapagos islands alone
around 200,000 tortoises are thought to have been killed and eaten at
this time.
How did Jonathan avoid this fate?
Maybe he became a curio for Hudson Janisch, governor in the 1880s.
Thirty-three governors have come and gone since then, and nobody
wants Jonathan to die on their watch. Mr Capes is certainly keen "that he
should be treated with the respect, attention and care he surely
A photograph taken in 1882 shows Jonathan at his full size, and it can
take 50 years to reach that physical maturity.
The years since haven't always been kind. Tourists would often do
whatever it took to get "that" photo.
BBC News - Meet Jonathan, St Helena's 182-year-old giant tortoise
Now, a viewing corridor runs along the bottom of the lawn to keep
overzealous sightseers at bay. It was a huge privilege for me to get so up
close and personal.
Jonathan loves having his neck stroked. His head extends out from his
shell to a surprising length.
He snaps for his food - bananas, cabbage and carrots - with some
ferocity. Joe almost lost the end of his thumb and has resorted to wearing
thick gloves.
"He doesn't mean to nip me," he says, "he just finds it difficult to locate his
Tortoises scrape at the grass with their horny beaks, made from keratin,
like nails.
Blindness made it hard for Jonathan to find the
right vegetation, and due to malnutrition
Jonathan's beak became blunt and soft, adding
to his problems finding food.
Now there's a new feeding regime, in place
where Joe delivers a bucket of fresh fruit and
vegetables every Sunday morning.
With this extra nutritional boost Jonathan's skin
now looks plump and feels supple.
His beak has become a deadly weapon for
anyone attempting to shove a carrot anywhere
near his mouth. And he can belch.
More on Jonathan
Seychelles giant tortoises can weigh up to 300kg
(660 lbs) and grow to be 1.3m (4 ft) long
Jonathan's life has spanned eight British
monarchs from George IV to Elizabeth II, and 51
prime ministers
It is thought Jonathan was brought to St Helena
from the Seychelles as a mature adult in 1882
If it's correct that he is 182 years old that would
make him about 10 years too young to have met
Napoleon, who died in 1821, even if he had spent
his whole life on St Helena
Tortoises may be slow but they are noisy, especially when they mate: "A
noise like a loud harsh escape of steam from a giant battered old kettle,
often rounded off with a deep oboe-like grunt." Joe reassures me it's
another indicator of good health.
Unfortunately, Jonathan's trysts have not produced young - thus far.
Though giant tortoises like Jonathan can live up to 250 years, the
community has already drafted a detailed plan for when he finally pops
his shell - dubbed "Operation Go Slow".
It will ensure all runs smoothly when the
inevitable happens, in fact his obituary has
already been written.
It has also been decided that stuffing Jonathan
would be a rather morbid and outdated thing to
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Life on St Helena
Instead his shell will be preserved and will go on
display in St Helena.
The Saints would like to raise funds for a life-size bronze statue of him.
When he goes, Jonathan will be mourned by friends and admirers on St
Helena and around the world.
But to me, he is also a symbol of a remote society, soldiering on in
genuine isolation.
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BBC News - Meet Jonathan, St Helena's 182-year-old giant tortoise
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