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Queries over 'oldest tortoise' claim

By Simon Pipe
BBC News

'Jonathan' the tortoise
Questions arise over whether Jonathan the tortoise is really that old

A giant tortoise that has been dubbed the world's oldest living creature may actually be an imposter, living under an assumed identity, it has emerged.

It had been reported that Jonathan, a present-day resident of St Helena, was living on the remote British island when Napoleon was exiled there back in 1815.

His claim to record longevity was based on a Boer War photograph of a Seychelles tortoise said to have been in the Atlantic island territory since Napoleon's time.

Both are called Jonathan and it was assumed that the tortoise now living on the governor's lawn was the one in the photograph.

But a St Helenian businessman and amateur historian, Nick Thorpe, has said he strongly suspects the creature in the picture actually died 90 years ago.

The possible confusion may have arisen because of a curious tradition among islanders of passing on nicknames from father to son.

The nickname "Dutchman", for instance, still survives among St Helenians, dating back to the days when Boer prisoners of war were kept on the island.

Mr Thorpe said: "I have a feeling that the Jonathan in the Boer War photograph died about ten years later.

Naming traditions

"Since they have several giant tortoises on St Helena, they simply named the next largest one Jonathan.

"The date of 175 years old is being assumed because the Jonathan in the photograph of 1901 looks like the Jonathan of today.

"As they are very difficult to date, no one can say with any certainty that this current, reigning Jonathan is 176 or 150 or even 200."

It is not the first time the present Jonathan's age has been disputed.

In 1972, readers of The Times debated the issue after the former Governor of Saint Helena, Sir James Harford, revealed he owned some pictures which could shed some light on the issue.

Nick Thorpe, Lolly Young and school reporter Sarah
Nick Thorpe and Lolly Young talk to school reporter Sarah about the story

In a letter dated 28 January, he said he had an aquatint picture showing two giant Seychelles tortoises on the lawn of Plantation House, the governor's residence, during Napoleon's time there.

He said a third tortoise arrived in 1882.

He also said that by 1918, two of the three had died and it was not known which one survived.

The possible identity-swap was discovered by Year 9 pupils at Banbury School in Oxfordshire.

They picked up on the story while taking part in BBC News School Report, a project that involves teaching pupils journalistic skills.

Mr Thorpe happened to have been on a visit to their school with Lolly Young, a school teacher in St Helena.

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