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Who Is The Giant Tortoise That Has Lived Through Eight British Monarchs?

Monday 31, January


A 191-year-old Tortoise has welcomed the Duke of Edinburgh to the Island of Saint Helena on an overseas visit by the royal nearly 75 years after his mother and grandfather last visited. The Seychelles giant tortoise, who lives at the Plantation House on the UK’s second oldest Overseas Territory, is believed to be the oldest living land animal in the world, based upon a certification by the Guinness Book of Records.

The tortoise, named Jonathan, was given to the Governor of Saint Helena Sir William Grey-Wilson in 1882 and was thought to have been at least 50 years old at the time of its gifting. To this day, he continues to reside on the grassy lawns outside of the Governor’s residence, on the British Overseas Territory alongside three other tortoises. One of whom, Frederika, given by the French consul in 1991 was, and continues to be, a devoted partner to Jonathan despite, in 2017, being discovered to be, in actuality, male, likely explaining the lack of offspring between the pair.

Purported to have been born in 1832, the famous resident has lived through the reigns of at least 8 British monarchs including William IV, Victoria, Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII, George VI, Elizabeth II, and Charles III as well as the terms of 31 island Governors’ and 40 U.S. presidents. In addition, he has seen the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, the end of the Spanish Inquisition, the Battle of the Alamo, the Boer War, WW1, WW2, the Partition of India, the Falklands War, the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. Perhaps befitting to his longevity, Jonathan currently features on the local currency on the back of the five-pence coin.

Although in good health, Jonathan is significantly older than the 150-year average life expectancy of Seychelles Giant Tortoises and is now blind with cataracts as well as lacking a sense of smell, according to the Smithsonian Magazine. To keep Saint Helena’s revered resident in his best health, his long-time vet Joe Hollins told the Guinness Book of Records in 2022 “he is still being hand-fed once a week with a fortifying helping of fruit and vegetables by a small, dedicated team. This not only supplements his calories but provides those essential drivers of his metabolism: vitamins, minerals, and trace elements.”

However, the breed as a whole is currently facing the threat of inbreeding, a biological concern that leads to a reduction in genetic diversity, as only 37 adult tortoises remained in 2011 after historical exploitation for food and exports decimated the slow-moving species’ population. According to an article published in the National Institute of Health, genetic diversity “underpins population resilience and persistence” and a reduction can lead to a decline in “reproductive fitness, and a limited ability to adapt to environmental change increasing the risk of extinction”.

Settled and claimed by the British in 1659, the small island Jonathan calls home is widely known for being the final resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte, the French military leader and Emperor, after being exiled after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. Saint Helena is so remote that it sits 1,200 miles from Africa and 1,800 miles from South America in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean and is one-third the size of the Isle of Wight, comparable to that of Disney World Orlando.

The four-day visit by His Royal Highness Prince Edward, Duke of Edinburgh included other excursions to the islands Jacob’s Ladder, a 699-step staircase leading to Ladder Hill Fort, greeting local community members at the Grand Parade, and listening to the “important role that the Princess Royal Community Centre plays for local residents” previously opened by Anne, Princess Royal in her 2002 visit, according to an Instagram post by The Royal Family.

The visit by the Duke is part of a wider tour of the region which included a visit to Pretoria, South Africa to see the Pretoria Gardens, after a previous visit by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to London’s Kew Gardens in 2023.


Photo Credit: Buckingham Palace

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