Robinson Crusoe certainly has a rough time of it, and that’s even after the seventeenth-century castaway has “found a large tortoise or turtle” while exploring the back side of the Island of Despair. But find one he does, and soon he is feasting on the “hundreds of them” that roam the opposite beach — their eggs and their flesh, “the most savoury and pleasant that I ever tasted in my life.”
The Robinsons, a Swiss family who wash up on a different island in a different sea, also do okay by exploiting their chelonian neighbours for “many a sumptuous meal.” And in one memorable scene — my childhood favourite from the 1960 film adaptation of the 1812 Johann David Wyss novel — a propitious marine turtle serves as something of a tugboat, helping Father and the gang drag their salvaged supplies from ship to shore.
Leviticus may lump the tortoise “among the creeping things that creep upon the earth,” but the placid guy is a very different beast than the weasel, the mouse, and the ferret, or even the chameleon, the lizard, and the snail. For one thing, when left alone by marooned or marauding sailors, he can live longer than any of those other creepers. A lot longer.
Take Jonathan, the Seychelles giant tortoise who turned 190 this past December, celebrating his special day with some “salad cake.” Jonathan lives on the grounds of Plantation House, on the South Atlantic island of St. Helena, just down the road from where Napoleon spent his final years. Bluejackets who presumably had something else to eat brought him to the remote British territory as a gift for Sir William Grey-Wilson in 1882, when he was already at least fifty. As far as we know, he is the oldest tortoise to ever live. In fact, no land animal is known to be older.
Herman Melville once described an aged tortoise as having “mystic hieroglyphics upon the back”— a living, breathing history book of sorts. Not that he realizes it, but good old Jonathan really has borne witness to a great deal of history: the invention of the photograph, the automobile, and the Soyuz spacecraft that took two of his Russian cousins around the moon in 1968; forty U.S. presidents and all twenty-three Canadian prime ministers; countless wars and treaties; and the Industrial Revolution and the explosion of plastics and all the other breakthroughs that have come at such a steep cost to the environment.
Three relatively younger giant tortoises live with Jonathan at Plantation House, including his long-time companion, Fred, but the animals have more or less gone extinct on most of the Indian Ocean archipelagos where they were once found — and hunted into oblivion. An exception is the Aldabra Atoll, with a population of approximately 100,000. The Aldabra tortoise, of which the Seychelles giant tortoise is one type, is the atoll’s largest animal, and, according to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, “it fills a similar role to the one occupied by elephants in Africa and Asia.” Because it consumes so much vegetation — and will even knock over trees and shrubs to get at its favourite greens — the armoured creature physically transforms its habitat in ways that benefit all local fauna.
With the hope of keeping remarkable species like the giant tortoise safe, along with the ecosystems that sustain them, world leaders recently gathered in Montreal for the United Nations Biodiversity Conference. Many laudable goals and targets were discussed over the course of two weeks, such as “protecting at least 30 percent of our land and 30 percent of our oceans by 2030, by launching the greatest conservation campaign in Canada’s history.” Although I couldn’t help but recall still another turtle whenever I read the environment minister Steven Guilbeault’s flag-waving and optimistic “thought of the day.”
Even older than Jonathan is the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno’s paradox of the tortoise and Achilles. If the slowpoke reptile is given a head start in a foot race, can the bipedal warrior ever catch him? “I thought some wiseacre or other had proved that the thing couldn’t be done?” the Tortoise points out in Lewis Carroll’s version of the paradox. “It can be done,” Achilles retorts. “It has been done! Solvitur ambulando.” To which the Tortoise explains why the smug hero can never actually catch up — how reality does not necessarily reflect the way we think about the world or our ability to control outcomes within it.
With respect to nature, we can never recover all the ground that’s been lost throughout Jonathan’s storied life. And this is no time to pretend we can mitigate further damage with an ambulatory pace. We need more than alliterative sloganeering. We need daily inspired action from all levels of government. From all of us as individuals. “Have you got that last step written down?” the Tortoise asks Achilles. “There are several millions more to come.”