Category Archives: Tortoises

Long live the Giant Tortoise!

Giant tortoise of Cousin beach

Giant Tortoise on Cousin beach © Martin Harvey

The News that the oldest living animal in the world, thought to be a giant tortoise who lives on the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean, originated from the Seychelles excited many here last week.

The Telegraph reported that Jonathan is the sole survivor of three tortoises that arrived on St Helena Island in 1882 from the Seychelles. He was already mature when he arrived and was at least 50 years old, therefore his minimum age is estimated to be 178 years old.

Another giant tortoise, an Aldabra Giant Tortoise that died in 2006 in the Alipore Zoological Gardens in Kolkata, India, and whose approximate age was later determined through carbon dating to be 255, was the previous oldest living tortoise  and was also from Seychelles. Adwaita, the pet of a general of the British East India Company,  was captured by British seafarers from the Seychelles and taken to India.

People have always been fascinated by giant tortoises. Even today, their gentle ET-like demeanour, slow lumber and the fact that they will submit to a petting without too much fuss makes them a popular attraction on islands where they have been introduced like Cousin Island Special Reserve. Aldabra Giant Tortoises roam freely around Cousin and the larger ones can usually be found on the beach in the early morning. George, Cousin’s oldest tortoise,  and Kasban, who hangs out near the visitor shelter, are among the favourites and are possibly some of the most photographed tortoises in the world!

The Cousin population was introduced in the past. When the island was sold to ICBP (now BirdLife International) there were several tortoises and they were included in the sale price of the island. They were originally kept impounded in a stone-walled tortoise enclosure of about 2 acres in size until they were released in 1980. In 2000, 6 females were purchased and brought to the Reserve in an adventure filled journey. Now they live free, enjoying a diverse vegetarian diet that includes noni fruits (fruits of the Indian mulberry tree, bwa torti). Perhaps that’s why they live for so long and seem to be full of energy.

Aldabra Giant Tortoises are endemic to the Seychelles. An estimated one hundred thousand of them live in the wild of the Aldabra Atoll, and several hundreds have been introduced to various islands of Seychelles including Curieuse, Fregate and Cousin. They are also widely kept in captivity. But tortoises were nearly wiped out. As an important food source for seafarers visiting Indian Ocean islands in the 17th to 19th centuries, they were hunted, captured and stored for meat on ships. This exploitation, the destruction of habitat and the introduction of predators decimated the populations, with the exception of those on the Aldabra Atoll.

Giant tortoises are listed as ‘Vulnerable’ in the IUCN (World Conservation Union) list of endangered species and their international trade is restricted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).