As It Happens

Jonathan the world's oldest tortoise is a 'charming old gentleman'

At the ripe old age of 190, Jonathan the Seychelles tortoise enjoys hanging out with his caretakers, eating locally grown fruit, posing for the camera, and having sexual dalliances with his male and female tortoise companions.

The Seychelles tortoise just celebrated his 190th birthday — but he could be even older than that 

Four children smile and pet a giant tortoise in the grass.
School children pet Jonathan, the world's oldest tortoise, and a major tourist draw for the British overseas territory of St. Helena. (Darrin Henry/Shutterstock)

There's nothing quite like spending a lazy Sunday lounging outside with a kindly old tortoise named Jonathan.

Such is the life of Teeny Lucy, a caretaker to the world's oldest tortoise, who resides on the island of St. Helena.

"It's quiet up there. There's nobody around, especially in the winter, and I can sit under a tree in the dripping rain with him for an hour just feeding [Jonathan]," Lucy, who works with the St. Helena Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Animals, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

"It's quite a special moment with a chap like that. He's a real icon."

Jonathan's 190th birthday — sort of

That icon has just celebrated his 190th birthday — although he could, in fact, be even older.

According to Guinness World Records, Jonathan holds the titles for world's oldest living land animal, and oldest chelonian — a term that encompasses all turtles and tortoises — ever. 

But his age, Lucy says, is a "conservative estimate."

He was first brought to St. Helena, a British overseas territory, from the Seychelles in 1882 as a gift to then-governor William Grey-Wilson.

Jonathan's exact date of birth is unknown, but by 1882 he had already reached maturity, which usually happens for Seychelles giant tortoises at about 50.

Just last month, the territory's current governor, Nigel Philips, declared Jonathan's official birthday as Dec. 4, 1832 — 50 years before he arrived at his new home.

A large tortoise stands on some grass.
Jonathan, a Seychelles giant tortoise, is the oldest tortoise ever and the world's oldest living land animal, according to Guinness World Records. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP via Getty Images)

And Jonathan has been celebrating his new birthday to much fanfare, with several TV appearances.

"We have noticed that sometimes he almost feels as if he's playing to the camera, but we can't be sure," Lucy said. "He doesn't sort of wander off. He just stays with you."

He's been compensated for his media work with extra servings of all his favourite fruit and veggies, she said.

"He's been a bit spoiled this week, to be honest. He's probably recovering now," Lucy said with a chuckle. 

A bisexual icon, hobnobbing with royalty 

Jonathan has lived a storied life during his almost two centuries on the planet. He's a major tourist draw for the island, and has played host to many high-profile visitors and members of the Royal Family, including the late Queen Elizabeth back when she was a young princess.

"When Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, he was already five years old. This is quite amazing, really, when you think about it," Lucy said.

But he doesn't just hobnob with humans. Jonathan was gifted alongside two other tortoises, Emma and Fred — both of whom he's been known to have sexual dalliances with.

"In spite of his age, Jonathan still has a good libido and is seen frequently to mate with Emma and sometimes Fred," his veterinarian Joe Hollins told Guinness. "Animals are often not particularly gender-sensitive."

Making healthy lifestyle changes

Jonathan is in pretty good health, says Lucy, though he has some age-relegated conditions, including cataracts. 

"We're pretty sure he can only see shadows, and he doesn't have a sense of smell anymore," she said.

But she's certain he recognizes the voices of his caretakers.

"I only have to go into the paddock and talk, and he gravitates towards my voice and starts walking towards me," she said.

Though she added with a chuckle: "It's only because he associates both myself and the vet with food."

A large tortoise stands in the grass, propping itself up on its two front legs and stretching out its neck as if trying to see something far away.
Jonathan is a 'charming gentlemen' who lives a life of leisure, says his caretaker. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images)

That food — a fresh mix of seasonal fruit and vegetables — has been a huge help for Jonathan. 

He used to graze freely on grass. But in 2014, Hollins noticed that because of his reduced smell and eyesight, he was having a hard time finding good grub, and was often gobbling up leaves and twigs. As a result, he was losing weight and becoming weaker.

So Hollins enacted a new feeding policy. Now Jonathan's diet consists of cabbage, carrots, lettuce — and his personal favourite, locally grown bananas and guavas.

Another lifestyle change that keeps Jonathan healthy is that his caretakers have a strict policy of not doing anything to cause him undue stress. 

Once upon a time, says Lucy, visiting dignitaries would pose for pictures with their children standing on the tortoises' backs. That wouldn't fly today.

"That must have been so incredibly stressful for them. So we try not to do anything like that that's going to upset them," she said. 

These days, Jonathan lives in peace. He's put on weight, and despite his cataracts, is pretty healthy for his age. 

For that, Lucy is grateful. She's grown very fond of Jonathan, whose slow-moving lifestyle has taught her the value of patience and relaxation.

"Tortoises, they don't move fast, and they contemplate everything. When I go up, it definitely reduces the anxiety that you might be feeling, and it's a slower pace of everything," she said.

"He's a charming old gentleman. He really is."

Corrections

  • In an earlier version of this story, a photo caption erroneously referred to Jonathan as the world's largest living land animal. In fact, he is the world's oldest living land animal.
    Dec 07, 2022 6:07 PM ET

Interview with Teeny Lucy produced by Brianna Gosse.

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