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Location Map jonathanplantationhouse Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise

Jonathan the tortoise

The world’s oldest land resident?

Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night

Jonathan is believed to be the world’s oldest living land animal.


Jonathan the tortoise Saint Helena Island Info
Jonathan the tortoise

Below: Who is ‘Jonathan’? • So how old is Jonathan, really? • What type of tortoise is he? • Why ‘Jonathan’? • How fast is Jonathan? • Vet’s Report • An interview with Jonathan? • Other giant tortoises at Plantation House • Tortoises are not toys! • Important Visitor Tip • Read More

Reference is made below to Joe Hollins as our vet. Joe is no longer here but you can contact our local vet.

Visiting Jonathan is one of our Top Twenty things to do during a visit to St Helena.

Please see our Important Visitor Tip (below).

Who is ‘Jonathan’?

Jonathan in 2016 Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise
Jonathan in 2016{a}

Jonathan is one of several giant tortoises that live in the grounds of Plantation House, the residence of the Governor of St Helena. Jonathan is the most famous because he is the oldest - indeed he may be the oldest living land animal on the planet!

Visitors to Plantation House can see the tortoises roaming free in the grounds. If you’re lucky, Jonathan may pose for a photo!

It could be argued that Jonathan has earned the status of a National Symbol, but this has never been publicly discussed.

The local 5 pence coin has Jonathan on its reverse.

So how old is Jonathan, really?

We believe he is around years old, but we aren’t certain. Read on to find out why…

Jonathan the tortoise ‘in a 1900 photograph’ Saint Helena Island Info
Jonathan probably 1860s Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise

Naturally, nobody is really sure about his date-of-hatching. Tortoises don’t carry a ‘date of manufacture’ mark and the colonial government of St Helena had other more pressing things to worry about than tortoises.

However, the belief is that he was brought to the island aged about 50 back in 1882, which would make his date of hatching 1832. Only he knows his actual age and he isn’t saying (though what he does say is recorded below).

Stories abound here that he met St Helena’s other famous resident Napoleon. But unless Jonathan’s age and arrival date have been misrecorded by more than sixty years this cannot be true, which is sad because the idea of the former conqueror of most of Europe chatting away to a tortoise is appealing{1}.

He was always famous on St Helena, but came to world media attention in 2008 when the UK Daily Mail newspaper ran a story using this old photograph (right, top). Said to have been taken in 1900 and to show Jonathan with a Boer prisoner and his escort, the paper claimed this showed that at 176 he was the world’s oldest living animal. The St Helena Independent carried a version of the story, including quotes from local people speculating about Jonathan’s age and the reasons for his longevity (more about this below.) However, further research{b} has shown that this is only part of a larger photo (below, right). The larger photo has been dated somewhat earlier, sometime before 1886, and the humans are described in its accompanying text thus: these men are good types of Saint Helenians. Measurements show Jonathan (on the left) to be c.48 inches long - his length today, showing that he was fully grown by 1886. This does not confirm his age but it helps! It also leaves the identity of the tortoise on the right unknown (see below).

In 2015, Island vet Joe Hollins said We have a record that he was landed in 1882 fully grown. We are told that fully grown is at least 50 years of age, and so this is how we extrapolate back to a hatching date of 1832, and forward to a current age of 183 (now ). Life expectancy is 150.

However, it should be noted that other, contradictory, information exists. Governor Gallwey, writing some time after his term ended in the Journal of the Royal African Society, July, 1941, says:

Two very interesting inmates of the Island, who lived in Government (a.k.a. Plantation) House grounds, were a couple of giant tortoises, weighing about 800 lbs. apiece. They had been presented to the Governor of the Island by the master of a sailing vessel in 1776, and were both going strong when I left the Island in 1911. They would walk away with the heaviest man on their backs without showing any signs of either disapproval or inconvenience. When I arrived in St Helena these two old inhabitants had been at Plantation for 126 years. What age they were when they first arrived, I do not know. One died a few years ago, but I am under the impression that one still exists. The couple, male and female, never raised a family.

If this is correct then Jonathan, the only survivor in 1941, would have been hatched before 1776, at least , and could indeed have met Napoleon. Sadly, we think this unlikely and suspect either that Governor Gallwey was misinformed or his memory of what he was told was inaccurate.

So how old is Jonathan, really? Why not come and examine him for yourself? Maybe if you offer him some lettuce he’ll share his secrets with you.

Jonathan in 1942 with Governor Bain Gray (1941-1946) Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise
Jonathan in 1942 with Governor Bain Gray (1941-1946){2}

‘mid-life’ crisis

Jonathan playing croquet 1969 Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise
Jonathan playing croquet, 1969

Jonathan in closeup Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise
Jonathan, in closeup

In his (slightly) younger days, Jonathan was a lot more lively, and regularly escaped from his enclosure… A 1960s worker at ‘A&F’{3} recalls:

I was also responsible for Jonathan. We used to have to carry him from Butcher’s Graves up in a big stretcher. He used to bust through any fence. He to used to go up Bishopsholme, up the church, even Rock Cottage. He would crawl up there some way!

According to a newspaper report from 1969, his behaviour was attributed to lonliness and Emma and David were sent here to keep him company. The report (in the ‘Reading Eagle’, 11th August 1969) says that Jonathan had started causing trouble - disrupting croquet games by sitting on the balls and upending the benches by the tennis courts at Plantation House. So Governor Dermod Murphy requested a mate from Mahe in the Seychelles and got two for the price of one.

What type of tortoise is he?

According to Jonathan’s Wikipedia article (yes, he’s famous enough to feature), Jonathan is a Seychelles Giant tortoise dipsochelys hololissa. It goes on to say that The Daily Mail article erroneously stated that Jonathan was of the species testudinipae cytodira. This is nonsensical, and appears to be a double misspelling as well as a reference not to his species, but rather to his family, testudinidae and genus, cryptodira respectively.. However if you look up the Wikipendia page for dipsochelys hololissa it states that the Sechelles Giant Tortoise is extinct, although it does mention that it has been suggested that some Seychelles island tortoises (12 known individuals) survive in captivity. The report of oddly-shaped captive tortoises prompted The Nature Protection Trust of Seychelles to examine the identity of the living tortoises. Examination of museum specimens of the ‘extinct’ Seychelles species by Dr. Justin Gerlach and Laura Canning seemed to show that some living tortoises possess characteristics of the extinct species. However, recently published scientific papers on the genetics of the Seychelles and Indian Ocean tortoises provide conflicting results. Some studies suggest only one species was present historically but others support the presence of three, closely related species..

An examination (by a visiting vet in June 2009) of Jonathan’s rear end may have settled the matter. Apparently his ‘anal scut’ (a part of his shell at the rear end) is not divided which makes him definitely a Seychelles Giant tortoise - at least until the next expert arrives.

Again, only Jonathan really knows about his ancestry.

Why ‘Jonathan’?

Jonathan gets a bath Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise
Jonathan gets a bath{4}

Why not? It is thought that Jonathan was nameless for the most part of his residence in St Helena and was named by Governor Spencer Davis (1932-1938). Why Sir Spencer chose the name Jonathan is not recorded. Indeed, if Google is to be believed, naming Jonathan was Sir Spencer’s sole contribution to St Helena - it certainly seems to be the only thing for which Sir Spencer is noted.

How fast is Jonathan?

In 2015 a tortoise named Bertie became the world’s fastest tortoise, with a speed of 0.6mph (about 1/50 of our local speed limit). Asked to comment on Jonathan’s possible speed, Joe the vet said: When he comes forward to get his feed, he gets quite a turn of speed on. I imagine between ½-1mph!

Vet’s Report

Joe Hollins, the island’s vet, issued the following report on Jonathan’s health on 7th December 2015:

Jonathan is alive and well! I fed him yesterday as I do every Sunday, and his appetite was vigorous. He’s blind from cataracts, has lost his sense of smell, and so cannot detect food (his fellow giants mug me and can detect the tiniest morsel dropped on the ground), but he has retained excellent hearing.

I literally hand feed him with gloves (welder’s gauntlets!). He knows my voice and so starts mouthing the air for food and I place it so that he bites off chunks as he has no idea where it is. This works well.

There is a chance that he’ll either drop dead tomorrow or live until he’s 250 and see us all off. The feeding has improved him surprisingly. His once blunt and crumbly beak has become sharp and lethal, so he was probably suffering from microdeficiencies of vitamins, minerals and trace elements.

You can read extracts relating to the Giant Tortoises in Joe Hollins’s 2009 report{5}.

In April 2018 one of the ‘Noble Lords’ in the UK Parliament asked if Her Majesty’s Government would be paying for an operation to have Jonathan’s catacts removed to increase the population of Giant Tortoises on St Helena.

Hansard 20180418 Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise

This seems curious. The noble lord should know that tortoises find a mate by smell, not by sight{6} and perhaps also realise that Jonathan has been here years and has never sired any offspring so he is probably either sterile or (as the article suggests), gay. Either way, improving Jonathan’s eyesight, while doubtless of benefit to him, would do nothing to increase the population of Giant Tortoises on St Helena.

An interview with Jonathan?

Headline for the St Helena Independent’s December 2008 article Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise

To quote from the St Helena Independent’s December 2008 article:

Saint FM (2004-2012) asked Governor Andrew Gurr whether we could have an exclusive interview with Jonathan. The answer was No use. He doesn’t say much. He only groans when he’s mating{7}

This allowed The St Helena Independent to lead with the picture (right). And in 2017 Jonathan’s mating activities came to world attention

In the same article we also read that naturalist Dr Rebecca Cairns-Wicks said:

Without suggesting that any scientific proof exists, Jonathan reaching such an exceptional age could be due to the effects of ‘Monkey’s ears’ centella asiatica, which is a common herb of pastures on St Helena. The leaves are rounded and slightly resemble monkey’s ears. It is apparently enjoyed by cattle and sheep and is abundant in the grass sward at Plantation. According to my book on herbs it has many medicinal uses in Asia, it is described as a rejuvenating diuretic herb that clears toxins, reduces inflammation and fever and boosts healing and immunity. In China it is used to make ‘long-life tea’ where a Professor, who drank the tea regularly, reputedly lived to the age of 265 and married 24 times. Perhaps this is what has helped Jonathan reach his grand old age.

Other giant tortoises at Plantation House

Below: Current • Past


Plantation House is home to four giant tortoises: Jonathan, David, Emma and Fredrik[a]. Until recently there were six.

They all feed on grass, but will eat all kinds of fruit and vegetables. At the corner of the lawn there is a water trough, from which they drink. They are most active in the mornings, moving freely about the lawn, but in the afternoon they tend to stay in the one area. By dusk they have settled down for the night.

Jonathan’s companions are more recent arrivals:






Emma a.k.a. Emily

Tortoise Emma a.k.a. Emily Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise



The Governor of the Seychelles sent her aged about 1 year, together with David.{8}


Tortoise David Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise



The Governor of the Seychelles sent him aged about 1 year, together with Emma.{8}


Tortoise Frederik[a] Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise

Thought Female but now known to be Male


Presented by Monsieur Martineau the French Consul in 1991; eight weeks old when [s]he arrived.

We say [s]he because, although thought to be female it has now been established that Frederika is, in fact Frederik - a male. As Jonathan has been reported to attempt mating frequently with Frederik[a] this led various newspapers in 2017 to suggest that maybe Jonathan is gay…see article (below).









Never named








It is generally accepted that Jonathan is the sole survivor of three giant tortoises that were imported to St Helena in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The first to arrive was a female, thought to have brought here from Mauritius in around 1776. A second tortoise is thought to have arrived, also from Mauritius, in around 1826, thought to be a male, to keep the female company (and possibly in the hope of breeding).

Jonathan and companion1914 Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise

One of the original two - the ‘male’ from 1826, it is thought - died in 1877, cause of death unknown (this probably explains why Jonathan was brought here, arriving in 1882). Its shell was sent to the London Natural History Museum, where it was examined and pronounced to be female!

The c.1776 female died in 1918 when she fell over a cliff while attempting to lay eggs, breaking her shell. We have a 1914 photo of Jonathan and one of his former companions (left), which must be the female from c.1776. We don’t definitively know which is which, but we assume Jonathan to be the larger.

As far as we know neither of the original tortoises had a name…but then Jonathan himself wasn’t named until the 1930s. And if you look at the 1860s photograph (above) you see two tortoises, of equal size. Our best guess is that the one that is not Jonathan is the c.1826 male/female that died in 1877.

Two others have arrived and died more recently:








Tortoise Myrtle Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise



Came from the Seychelles, at an estimated age of 26 years, she originally lived in a private house in Longwood, and moved to Plantation House in 1991.

7th July 2016, probably of kidney failure


Tortoise Speedy Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise



Delivered by a Clan Line merchant ship. Originally in a private house in Jamestown; moved to Plantation House in 1986.

January 2009. His death was never explained.{9}

Tortoises are not toys!

Current best veterinary advice{10} is that riding on tortoises harms them, so it is no longer permitted. But in the ‘before days’ this was not the case, as is illustrated by the photographs below, one of which shows the future King of England riding on Jonathan horseback style, with reins…



Daughter of Governor Harper Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise
Daughter of Governor Harper

Future King Edward VIII Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise
Future King Edward VIII

1960s(?) visitors Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise
1960s(?) visitors


Important Visitor Tip

When visiting the tortoises, it is important that you do not startle them. They are fairly impervious to noise and camera flashes, but can be startled if approached by a stranger - someone whose smell they do not recognise. When a tortoise is startled it goes into a defence mode which, amongst other things, shuts down its breathing - see our Giant Tortoise Facts (below). This is obviously hazardous to their health; particularly for an individual of Jonathan’s age.

When visiting, please remain within the fenced-off viewing area and do not attempt to get into the paddock with the tortoises unless invited and escorted by a competent person.

Read More

Below: Giant tortoise facts • Article: Love and Jonathan • Article: Is world’s oldest tortoise GAY? • Article: Meet Jonathan, St Helena’s 182-year-old giant tortoise • Article: Jonathan’s birthday…what ancient history never taught us

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

WARNING: For the avoidance of doubt, you participate in any activities described herein entirely at your own risk.


Giant tortoise facts

Jonathan Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise
Jonathan Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise
Jonathan Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise

The information below was kindly provided by the island’s Veterinary Service (see local vet).

Below: Shell • Head and neck • Breathing • Circulation and Heat Exchange • Hibernation • Senses


A tortoise’s shell has remained almost unaltered by two hundred million years of evolution. The shell is basically an extension of the rib cage, which unlike most vertebrates is housed on the outside rather than inside the body. It is made up of two halves: the underneath known as the plastron; and the top known as the carapace. These are fused together at the sides by a bridge.

Head and neck

The tortoise’s head features a toothless jaw, and a pair of small holes called ‘nares’ through which the tortoise breathes, smells and (surprisingly) drinks.

They lack teeth, but their jaws are lined with horny sharp ridges which come together like a pair of pinking shears. They have powerful jaw muscles and their beak edge is sharp. Tortises are not aggressive but they are quite short sighted and if they mistake your finger for food you could lose your finger!

The tortoise’s neck has five vertebrae, like most other animals, but when they retract it they bend it in a sharp ‘S’ curve to bring it all the way in the shell. They can also touch their elbows in front of the nose and point their hands to either side as they do it, for increased defence.


The main difference between a tortoise’s respiration and ours is the volume of CO² they can contain in their blood. When we hold our breath, the rising CO² in our blood makes us want to start breathing again within a minute or so. Tortoises are much more tolerant of rising CO², allowing them to inhale far less frequently.

Tortoises breathe quite differently to humans since their ribcages cannot move. They force air in and out of their lungs by working their limbs, which can look like shrugging their shoulders. They smell by pumping their throat to move air past their Jacobsen’s Organ; the scent organ most reptiles use.

If you startle a tortoise, its first reaction is to retract its head into the shell and the only way a tortoise can do this is by emptying its lungs. It will sound like the tortoise is hissing. A frightened tortoise can remain for some time with almost empty lungs.

Circulation and Heat Exchange

Tortoises, like other reptiles, are cold blooded. This means they need to seek an external active heat source to keep their body within the optimum temperature range, enabling their vital organs to function properly. Tortoises do this by positioning their carapace toward the sun.

A tortoise’s carapace incorporates tiny pores which help it trap the radiant heat. It’s worth noting that owners of tortoises should never use any oils on their shell, as this may block the pores and significantly hinder their thermo-regulation capabilities.

Just as ours, a tortoise’s heart pumps blood to all the vital organs and muscle groups, but a large amount of blood is also sent underneath the carapace to warm up before circulating around the body. Hence they need to bask in the sun until their shell warms up and in turn warms their blood. When they are cold they don’t move much, if at all. They sleep from the late evening, when the sun loses its power, and are most active in the morning or middle of the day.


Our giant tortoises do not hibernate as such, but on St Helena the weather does get wet and quite cold at times and then they go into partial shutdown; they stop moving around and may even not feed. The habitat they evolved to inhabit in the Seychelles is drier and warmer than St Helena.


Article: Love and Jonathan

Published in the St Helena Sentinel 20th December 2018{c}

I will marry the man who takes me to St Helena to meet Jonathan.

An American couple - James Swanson and Erica Munkwitz - have travelled from Washington D.C. to St Helena Island, spurred by the above statement of Erica’s.

I thought, if that’s all I have to do to get her, I’m planning the trip! That sounds like a great deal for me, James said.

For around seven years now, Erica has been enthralled with St Helena’s oldest resident - Jonathan the tortoise. In the SAMS Radio 1 studio on Thursday, Erica said that as a university professor of British history, she finds Jonathan’s age incredibly interesting.

As a historian - in America we don’t have anything that’s old. Nothing. Thirty years old and it’s considered ancient, Erica said. And to know that there was a living, breathing animal that’s almost two centuries old… To imagine all the things that Jonathan has seen, or experienced, or that have happened while he’s been alive - everything that has made our modern world… That just fascinated me; absolutely stunned me. And so I just wanted to go and see him and be in that presence - that historical presence. He is a living monument. He’s not made of stone, he’s not made of concrete; he is a living, breathing animal that has been on this planet for that long. I was just blown away.

So blown away, that when she met James two years ago, the statement ‘I will marry the man who takes me to St Helena to meet Jonathan’ was one of the fist things she said to him. And to his credit he didn’t think I was crazy, Erica said. He thought it was a madcap adventure, and he was more than supportive and said ‘we will defiitely do this.’

And on Wednesday, the ‘madcap adventure’ successfully brought on an engagement. After finally meeting and helping to feed Jonathan, and after a meal at Jonathan’s residence of Plantation House, James got down on one knee, with Jonathan watching, and asked Erica to marry him.

And I said - to Jonathan, ‘should we accept?’ And I believe Jonathan said ‘yes;’ and so I, of course, said ‘yes, I will marry you,’ Erica said. James and Erica arrived to St Helena on Dec. 8 and will depart Dec. 29. The couple is also writing a history article for the Smithsonian Magazine while on the island, and is also enjoying hikes and getting to know not only Jonathan, but the rest of the island’s population as well.

St Helena Sentinel credited Samantha Reinders for the photo:

Erica Munkwitz James Swanson and Jonathan Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise
Erica Munkwitz, James Swanson and Jonathan

Article: Is world’s oldest tortoise GAY?

By Fiona Parker, Daily Mail, 19th October 2017{11}

Daily Mail 20171019 Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise

Long-term relationships often lead to slowly uncovered secrets about partners, but Jonathan, the world’s oldest tortoise, was in for a shock after 26 years of enjoying a physical relationship with what keepers thought was a female. Elderly Frederica who lives on St Helena with Jonathan is actually Frederic.

Many people who have been in long-term relationships will tell you they slowly uncovered secrets about their partner over the years. But none of them are likely to have been as surprised as Jonathan, the world’s oldest tortoise, when he discovered something ground-breaking about his lover of 26 years.

Jonathan 1990 Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise
Not a 1900 photo

At 186 years old, Jonathan is the most senior resident of St Helena, a British Overseas Territory 1,200 miles off the coast of southern Africa. He arrived on St Helena in his thirties, as a gift to the governor. He also famously once posed with prisoners held captive on the island during the Boer war.

But late into his eighties, Jonathan became irritable and began knocking over benches and interrupting cricket games between residents on the lawn in front of the governor’s Georgian mansion.

Vets decided he needed a girlfriend and in 1991 he was given a mate. Romance blossomed with Frederica and it wasn’t long before the couple began enjoying regular mating sessions every Sunday morning, The Times reported. But despite their amorous antics, the pair never had any young. Now, almost three decades after the romance began, the reason has been revealed. When vets went to repair a lesion on the tortoise’s shell it was discovered that Frederica was actually a Frederic, putting a whole new spin on the relationship.

The island’s vet Catherine Man said the pair were creatures of habit and ate and slept at set times, living off a healthy diet of vegetable titbits and vitamins. But Jonathan now suffers from cataracts and his sense of smell is gone.

A bill was introduced last year to allow same-sex marriage on the island, which has a population of 4,255, but it was withdrawn after local outrage. Consultations are being held across the island to canvass opinion on whether a bill should be presented to the council before a court case that is set to challenge the current law on discrimination grounds.

Our Comment: This piece is amusing but, typically, full of errors. Frederik[a] could hardly be described as ‘elderly’ Jonathan arrived aged at least 50; the photo was pre-1886 and not with Boer prisoners; and only a few noisy people objected to the Marriage Bill - most Saints treat minorities equally. Still at least they didn’t manage to make yet another dig at our most useless airport

Article: Meet Jonathan, St Helena’s 182-year-old giant tortoise

BBC 13th March 2014 By Sally Kettle, St Helena{11}

Meet Jonathan St Helena’s 182-year-old giant tortoise Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise
Meet Jonathan St Helena’s 182-year-old giant tortoise Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise
Meet Jonathan St Helena’s 182-year-old giant tortoise Saint Helena Island Info Jonathan the tortoise

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{12} 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.

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 Island and Tristan da 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. 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 exile. 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 Helena. During the 17th Century ships could contain hundreds of easily-stacked tortoises, like a fast-food 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 deserves.

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. 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 food. 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.

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 do. 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.

More on Jonathan

Article: Jonathan’s birthday…what ancient history never taught us

By Simon Pipe, 6th February 2015{11}

Jonathan the tortoise at Plantation House Saint Helena Island Info

We hate to disappoint the newspaper readers of Holland, but Jonathan the Tortoise will not be celebrating his birthday on 7th February… regardless of what it may say on the Wikipedia website{13}.

Since the 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 7th February 1832{13} (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, St Helena 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?

We can always ask Governor Capes to make 7th February Jonathan’s birthday ‘by decree’. I think it is a good idea - still, 183 candles on a piece of lettuce would look ridiculous.

Laugh at funny Jonathan the tortoise humour LOL Saint Helena Island Info

{a} Governor Lisa Phillips{b} Historian Rosemary Rees{c} South Atlantic Media Services Ltd (SAMS){11}

{1} See other debunked myths.{2} This photograph begs for a humorous caption! Please contact us with your suggestions!{3} Agriculture & Fisheries Department of Government of St Helena, now part of the Environment Management Division.{4} This photo was taken in March 2016. The St Helena Independent stated that this was Jonathan’s first ever bath, though we find this hard to believe. Why now? Perhaps it was in anticipation of the opening of the St Helena Airport or the arrival of the new Governor, we don’t know.{5} Note though that this is from 2009 and some facilities have been improved since then. The water trough has gone and been replaced with a better drinking basin, and the tortoise bath is fully cleaned out and functional.{6} Otherwise all the rocks lying around would be…{7} Are governors allowed to say things like that?{8} See here for how Emma and David came to be here.{9} Some say it was related to Governor Gurr evicting him from his favourite haunt, the Courtyard, to make room for the Governor’s dog, forcing Speedy to live on the main lawn.{10} You can contact our local vet for more details.{11} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.{12} Who died on 7th July 2016.{13} For completeness we should point out that the Wikipedia entry has now been changed.

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