Happy 191st (or So) Birthday to the World’s Oldest Living Land Animal

Kevin Gepford
Joe Hollins with Jonathan on St. Helena Island in 2022.

On New Year’s Day, Joe Hollins celebrates his ancient buddy, Jonathan the tortoise, the world’s oldest living land animal. Jonathan is now 191 years old – or so.

“He could actually be older,” said Hollins, 66, explaining that Jonathan’s age is a conservative estimate.

Hollins is a veterinarian who has cared for the elderly tortoise and three other land tortoises on St. Helena Island since 2009.

Last year, St. Helena’s governor, Nigel Phillips, gave Jonathan an unofficial hatch date of Dec. 4, 1832, but Hollins still celebrates on New Year’s Day.

“It’s not his birthday, but celebrating his year of age, whatever that may be,” Hollins said.

On his big day, Hollins expects Jonathan to roam slowly (very slowly) to find fresh clover and then indulge in a late afternoon nap. His slowness is a reflection of his species rather than his vitality.

Teeny Lucy
Jonathan slowly makes the rounds outside the St. Helena governor’s mansion earlier this year.

As Jonathan enters his 192nd year, he still shows a zest for life.

He formed a relationship with another tortoise named Fred, then thought to be Frederica, more than 25 years ago, and now sometimes tries to mate with him and a tortoise named Emma, Hollins said.

“As a vet, I can tell you it’s only us humans who get hung up on gender distinctions,” Hollins said. “Animals are less picky.”

The Seychelles giant tortoise has already beat the average 150-year life expectancy for a land tortoise by several decades, but Hollins is hopeful that he’ll be greeting visitors well into his third century at the governor’s residence on St. Helena, a British territory located about 1,200 miles off the coast of Africa.

With the exception of Greenland sharks, which are estimated to live at least 250 years, “it astounds me to think there is no living creature on the surface of this planet that was in existence before him,” said Hollins.

Earlier this year, he wrote a book about his caretaking adventures – “Vet at the End of the Earth” – which was published by Duckworth Books in the United Kingdom. Hollins said there are plans to have it published in the United States in late 2024.

The first part of his book focuses on the complexities of caring for Jonathan. When Hollins arrived on the island more than 14 years ago, he said Jonathan was in poor health with cataracts, a crumbly beak and a thin reptilian hide.

Hollins said he began feeding Jonathan fresh fruits and vegetables to supplement the calories he received from grass and hay, and the tortoise’s sharp beak grew back and his health dramatically improved.

He said he has been enamored with shelled reptiles since he cared for smaller varieties as a child when he was growing up in the U.K.

“I love this extraordinary animal to bits,” he said about Jonathan. “It is the greatest of privileges to look after him.”

Jonathan is a 400-pound chelonian who is blind and no longer has a sense of smell, but is otherwise healthy with excellent hearing and finds his way around by sound.

A photo taken between 1882 and 1886 shows him grazing on the grounds outside the governor’s mansion, and a letter mentions that when he came to St. Helena in 1882 from the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, he was “fully grown.”

Joe Hollins
Jonathan is on the left in this historical photo taken on St. Helena Island, circa 1882 to 1886.

On a tortoise timeline, that means he was at least 50 years old, Hollins said, noting that Jonathan is St. Helena’s most famous resident since Napoleon was exiled to the island in 1815 after losing the Battle of Waterloo.

Jonathan has become a media darling, featured in The Washington Post and other publications throughout the years.

About 1,500 tourists visit the island every year for a chance to see Jonathan and the other tortoises: Fred, age 52, and Emma and David, both 55. Hollins said visitors often take home pocket change from St. Helena, including a five pence coin in circulation that is engraved with Jonathan’s likeness.

“Tourists are obsessed with Jono,” said Hollins, using the nickname that he and two other caretakers use for him.

“For this reason, we had to introduce a tortoise corridor – a viewing path – as groups of tourists would mob him for a photo or a selfie, and some would attempt to ride him,” he said.

Joe Hollins
Jonathan indulged Joe Hollins with a selfie in 2020.

Hollins said visitors are in awe when they learn that Jonathan was probably about 50 years old when the incandescent lightbulb was invented, and that he’s seen 31 governors come and go from the St. Helena governor’s mansion during his lifetime.

“He receives dignitaries on a regular basis and enjoys the attention, posing for camera shots magnificently,” he said. “He loves the chatter and interaction.”

Jonathan also enjoys the sounds that come from a nearby tennis court, Hollins added, noting that the tortoise “sits outside the court like a fossilized spectator.”

“The clack-clack of tennis balls and shouted challenges and laughter draw him over,” he said. “It was recorded in 1969 that he used to be mischievous, disrupting croquet games by sitting on the balls, and turning over benches by the tennis court.”

The tortoise is also is drawn by the voices of his keepers, knowing it will soon be time to eat.

“He recognizes my voice when I approach and call to him softly,” Hollins said. “He literally jerks to attention and starts biting the air.”

Hollins said he puts on thick gloves to hand-feed the tortoise bananas, cucumbers and carrots, and his favorite treat of pears and lettuce hearts.

“He adores eating – I often hold back on feeding him too much if we have a generous bucket of food, because I’m worried he’ll burst,” he said. “I’ve never known him to press the stop button.”

He smiles at the possibility that the crusty old tortoise may yet outlive him.

“Whatever happens, I think we can be satisfied that we’ve done our best for him,” he said. “But I hope to be around to celebrate his 200th [birthday.]”

Joe Hollins
Jonathan the tortoise is featured on some of St. Helena’s five pence coins.