S.Atlantic : St Helena's Tortoises at Plantation House
Submitted by SARTMA.com (Public Relations Information Office) 01.04.2010 (Article Archived on 08.04.2010)
He could be the oldest living creature in the world and he lives on the lawn in front of Plantation House
THE TORTOISES AT PLANTATION HOUSE
He could be the oldest living creature in the world and he lives on the lawn in front of Plantation House. Without doubt Jonathan is a tourist attraction, but to the Governor, and to all on this island, he is an added responsibility.
Last August I asked the visiting Veterinary Officer, Joe Hollins, to advise me on the care of the giant tortoises that grace the paddock at Plantation House. Although all five of these worthy animals appeared to be in good health there seemed to be nobody on the island who had any detailed knowledge of how they should be looked after. Michael Thorpe came up with some interesting ideas as to grass length and possible additives that might enhance their diet, but professional advice was required.
In carrying out his task Joe sought the views of Tim Skelton, the Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians at Bristol Zoo, and Dr.Justin Gerlach of the Nature Protection Trust of the Seychelles. Joe’s report is both interesting and useful in that it reveals some interesting facts and provides us with a methodology for the proper care of giant tortoises.
There are two distinct populations of giant tortoises in the world – those from the Galapagos and those from the Indian Ocean. It was thought that all but one of the original five species of Indian Ocean tortoises had become extinct, but Dr.Gerlach believes that Jonathan could be an example of Dipsochelys Hololissa. This means that he could well be the only surviving example of that species. The other four are all Aldabra Giant Tortoises or Dipsochelys Dussumieri. Identifying them is difficult enough, actually caring for them is even more complicated.
In trying to understand the existing environment Joe took samples of grass, measured the length, weighed batches that had been cut, examined in detail the mat of rotting grass that accumulates after cutting and generally observed the behaviour of all five tortoises. He then compared what is happening now with what was recommended by the external experts and reached several conclusions that will help us in improving our care for these incredible creatures.
There are four main areas of recommendation:
- The responsibility for the welfare of the tortoises should be the Governor’s, and the duty of care should be vested in the Vet and Livestock Section of the ANRD. The reasons for that are that these creatures are a national asset and ANRD is the best suited organisation to advise and exercise care.
- The length of grass in the paddock should be varied so as to accommodate a variety of foraging requirements. This means that the grass at the northern end of the paddock (furthest from the House), will be allowed to grow up to 1 ft in height, whereas the rest of the mown area will continue to be cut as at present. The paddock grass consists of a number of different species and it is advised that this particular configuration will optimise the menu available.
- The tortoises seem to have varying requirements for water. They use it for drinking and for occasional bathing. In fact they also love mud as covering themselves with it helps to cool them down in hot weather. I doubt whether the females use it for their complexion! We have not been keeping the water as clean or as accessible as we should have done and so some of you may have noticed a new ramp and a cleaner trough by the kissing-gate entrance. There is a larger trough at the other side of the paddock and that will also be maintained in a more suitable condition.
- Then there is the issue of dietary supplements. The experts agree that the very basic nature of the tortoise diet of grass is good for them They may require occasional vegetables and very occasionally fruit, but too much non-grass food could actually be damaging to their digestion and cause unwanted growths. That is why we erected a notice asking the public not to feed the tortoises. Subsequently vandals tore that notice down which is a reflection on human, rather than tortoise, society.
It is the responsibility of all of us to care for these wonderful animals as best we can. Jonathan is very old, already well beyond the “normal” age for a tortoise of this type. Let us hope that Jonathan, David, Myrtle, Frederika and Emma, all live for many years yet.
Governor 22nd March 2010