More visitors for giant tortoise

Jonathan the tortoise (above), believed to be at least 185 years old, lives in pampered luxury on the remote British island of St Helena, which recently opened an airport.
Jonathan the tortoise (above), believed to be at least 185 years old, lives in pampered luxury on the remote British island of St Helena, which recently opened an airport.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

JAMESTOWN • It is worth shelling out a lot of money to see.

After all, Jonathan the giant tortoise is perhaps the world's oldest land animal, living in pampered luxury on the remote British island of St Helena.

Aged at least 185 - though no one knows for certain - it should prepare himself for an influx of visitors now that an airport has opened on the small island in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean.

The island's most famous resident, Jonathan slowly roams the lush gardens of the governor's house, eating carrots, lettuce, cucumber, apples and pears prepared in the kitchen.

It appears on the island's five-pence coin, on immigration stamps and in old black-and-white photographs alongside Boer War prisoners in the early 20th century.

"He is an institution, my VIP - Very Important Patient," said his veterinarian Catherine Man, during her weekly check-up of Jonathan, who stretched out his long, wrinkled neck to eat some chopped carrot.

"He knows our voices and is very gentle, but it can be a bit dangerous for my fingers when I feed him.

"He has a very set routine - he goes to the same places in the paddock at the same time each day."

Jonathan originates from the Seychelles, but the circumstances of its arrival on St Helena, a British Overseas Territory, remain a mystery and the exact year is much disputed.

Some unconfirmed reports suggest 1882 - a few decades after French strongman Napoleon died in exile on the island on 1821.

When younger and more agile, it was known for disrupting croquet matches on the governor's lawn and going under tables at tea parties and upsetting the china.

Ms Man, the only veterinarian among the island's 4,500 population, said it is now blind, has no sense of smell and is already far beyond its life expectancy of 150 years - but otherwise it is in good health with good hearing.

"Reptiles have a slow metabolism. They breathe slowly, they eat slowly and live a long time," she added.

"But perhaps his stress-free lifestyle here and the clean air help explain his longevity."

St Helena, 1,900km from the African mainland, is one of the most remote places on Earth.

Until now, the island's only link to the outside world was by ship, but the new airport brings tourists on a weekly commercial flight from Johannesburg.

They will be able to visit Jonathan, viewing it and its three younger companions - Emma, David and Frederica - from a designated "corridor" to ensure the tortoises are left largely undisturbed.

Ms Lisa Phillips, governor of St Helena, said when she arrived to take up the post last year, she went to meet Jonathan before she stepped inside the governor's house.

"He loves company," she noted, even suggesting that Jonathan is attracted to Emma, a mere youth at 49. "He still enjoys the ladies," she said.

Inevitably, there has to be a plan for when Jonathan finally dies.

Its obituary has already been prepared and his shell will be preserved for posterity.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2017, with the headline 'More visitors for giant tortoise'. Print Edition | Subscribe