JAMESTOWN, Saint Helena, United Kingdom — He is a tourist attraction worth traveling a long way to see: Jonathan the giant tortoise is perhaps the world's oldest land animal, living in pampered luxury on the remote British island of St. Helena.
Aged at least 185—though no one knows for certain—Jonathan should prepare himself for an influx of visitors now that an airport has opened on the small island in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean.
The island's most famous resident, Jonathan slowly roams the lush gardens of the governor's house, eating carrots, lettuce, cucumber, apples and pears prepared in the governor's kitchen.
He appears on the island's five-pence coin, on immigration stamps, and in old black-and-white photographs alongside Boer War prisoners in the early 20th century.
"He is an institution, my V.I.P.—Very Important Patient," said his vet Catherine Man, during her weekly check-up of Jonathan, who stretched out his long, wrinkled neck to eat some chopped carrot.
"He knows our voices and is very gentle, but it can be a bit dangerous for my fingers when I feed him.
"He has a very set routine, he goes to the same places in the paddock at the same time each day."
Jonathan originates from the Seychelles but the circumstances of his arrival on St. Helena remain a mystery and the exact year is much disputed.
Some unconfirmed reports suggest 1882—a few decades after Napoleon died in exile on the island on 1821.
When younger and more agile, he was known for disrupting croquet matches on the governor's lawn, and for going under tables at tea parties and upsetting the china.
Man, the only vet among the island's 4,500 population, says he is now blind, has no sense of smell and is already far beyond his life expectancy of 150 years—but otherwise he is in good health with good hearing.
"Reptiles have a slow metabolism, they breathe slowly, they eat slowly, and live a long time," she said.
"But perhaps his stress-free lifestyle here, and the clean air help explain his longevity."
St. Helena, located 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) from the African mainland, is one of the most remote places on Earth.
Until now, the island's only link to the outside world was by ship, but the new airport brings tourists on a weekly commercial flight from Johannesburg.
They will be able to visit Jonathan, viewing him and his three younger companions—Emma, David, Frederica—from a designated "corridor" to ensure the tortoises are left largely undisturbed.
Lisa Phillips, the governor of St. Helena, said that when she arrived to take up the post last year she went to meet Jonathan before she stepped inside the governor's house.
"He loves company," she said, even suggesting that venerable Jonathan is attracted to Emma, a mere youth at the age of 49.
"He still enjoys the ladies and I have heard him quite regularly in the paddock with Emma and he grunts," she said.
"I have to keep an eye on him when he is doing that—it was not in the job description when I became governor."
Inevitably, there has to be a plan for when Jonathan finally dies.
His obituary has already been prepared and his shell will be preserved for posterity. — AFP