On the Island of Saint Helena

The world’s most well-known living tortoise, Jonathan, is also one of the world’s most remote — living on a volcanic island a thousand miles off the coast of Africa.

Jamestown, Saint Helena

One of the things that’s driving the book I’m writing about tortoises is my passion for original reporting. You can only get so far just talking to scientists or researchers. For the interesting stories, you’ve got to get up close. One of the things that’s super important to me is firsthand experience of the environment where tortoise conservation is being done. I want to meet the people, watch the animals, smell the air. And that’s taking me to some far-out places.

Saint Helena in the South Atlantic.

To understand the story of the world’s oldest tortoise I traveled to the island of Saint Helena, a speck in the South Atlantic Ocean between Africa and Brazil.

Tortoises have dispersed into some pretty unlikely places over millions of years. I’m thinking of the Galapagos archipelago, or the Seychelles islands. Think about this: To accomplish this, a non-swimming tortoise has to cross a great body of water. And they have done it multiple times around the world.

Things are a little different for the world’s most well-known living tortoise, Jonathan. True, he’s one of the world’s most remote — living on a volcanic island a thousand miles off the coast of Africa. However, unlike the Galapagos or other islands, he did not arrive through natural means. He was brought from the Seychelles by ship in 1882 and presented to the governor of Saint Helena as a gift. 

Since then, Jonathan has seen seven generations of Saints come and go, and outlasted 34 governors. His 35th governor, Sir Nigel Phillips, came in on the same plane that brought me to Saint Helena.

What makes Jonathan so famous? His extraordinarily long life — he is 190 years old.

Joe Hollins in a quiet moment with Jonathan.

Earlier this year (2022) he made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for the second time. Jonathan takes the prize for oldest living tortoise, plus being the “oldest living land vertebrate” — a highly specific category out of necessity for inclusion. This grants the 400-year-old sharks finning around Greenland the chance a potential niche category of their own.

In my two weeks on Saint Helena I visited Jonathan several times, watching nap under a great tree at the edge of his pasture, being hand-fed, and sunning himself on a clear afternoon. This was September, and the misty rains of winter still held back the sun for much of the day. I got a chance to speak with his caretakers Joe Hollins and Teeny Lucy who take responsibility for Jonathan’s weekly feedings as well as keeping an eye on his overall health. Joe has been the island vet for more than a decade and he poured out his wealth of knowledge every time we got together. Joe helped paint a more complete picture of the island’s past and present for me.

Proud Jonathan, at Plantation House.

Many questions are raised by Jonathan’s longevity. Why do tortoises live so long? Can cancer researchers learn anything by studying them? Is there a consistent way to test a tortoise for how old he/she really is? These are some things I’ll be digging in to.