Today, I gave a 152-year-old giant tortoise a neck massage….*

As it turns out, there are species other than watalii  (tourists) and waswahili (Swahili people) to observe on the island of Zanzibar.   A 30″ boat ride took me to the island of Changuu, home to over 100 endangered Aldabra giant tortoises, so named for their original habitat on Aldabra island.   Aldabra is the largest of the Seychelle Islands, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean located north of Madagascar and east of Zanzibar.  Aldabra is an atoll (a ring-shaped reef, island, or chain of islands made of coral) comprised of four large coral islands surrounding a shallow lagoon.  The entire atoll is  encircled by a fringing reef (a reef that lies close to the shore) and and is one of the largest coral islands in the world.   Designated a Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982, the 100,000 tortoises that live there are now fully protected for eternity.   Owing to its relative isolation, it has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years.  There are over 400 different endemic species and subspecies of vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants.

The last flightless bird in the Indian Ocean, the Aldabra rail, is on Aldabra.   One of the only two existing oceanic flamingo populations lives there.  The coconut crab, the largest land crab in the world hangs out  there.  It is an important breeding ground for the endangered green turtle and for the critically endangered hawksbill turtle.   The ecosystems are intact and sustain the viable populations of all the key species.   Needless to say, I have now added Aldabra to my growing must-see-before-I-die list of Indian Ocean destinations, right along with other islands in the Seychelles archipelago, Pemba island in Zanzibar archipelago, and Madagascar.   Despite having lived on the East African mainland coast for several years, I had no idea that there was so much going, just out of sight,  in the vast expanse of blue that continually folded and unfolded against the shores where I walked everyday.

There are two different accounts of how the Aldabra tortoises got to Changuu island in the first place, but both report that all the 100+ tortoises on the island are desendents of an original set of four that were gifts from the Seychelle Islands.  Personally, I prefer the story told to me by my guide, but I fear that the account given on the internet is probably the more accurate.  According to my guide, the original four tortoises were gifts to one of the Sultans of Zanzibar from the Seychelles back in a time when Zanzibar was an Omani holdingThe Sultan of Zanzibar originally kept them in his palace on the outskirts of Stone Town but, upon realizing that it was too hot and dry for them there, he moved them to Changuu where he would go to visit them.   I loved envisaging the Sultan in his sweeping robes, probably with a few concubines in tow, climbing aboard a wooden boat to sail to Changuu to visit his beloved tortoises.  The less romantic version of the story is that the British governor of the Seychelles sent the tortoises as a gift directly to Changuu in 1919.   I am choosing to remember the more romantic version of their origination story.

The Aldabra tortoise is one of the largest tortoises in the world. They can live to up to 300 years of age.  Apparently they welcome, in addition to leaves and cabbage, a good massage, although only their long legs and long necks can enjoy such simple pleasures.   In addition to my 152 year old massage client, I was also able to see a 192 year old dozing (I think) in a murky pool of mud, another favorite pastime of theirs I was told, although I was not impressed.  It looked dreadfully unhealthy to me.  You can google “giant tortoises, Changuu, Zanzibar”, to see their pics, although pics don’t quite do justice for these magnificent shelled reptiles.

The ages of the Aldabra tortoises are painted on top of their shells and you can tell which ones are females because the numbers get rubbed off when the males mount them for intercourse, something which I had the good fortune to witness, albeit at the tail end (literally) ) of the encounter.   I only got to see him slide off the female’s back with a loud thunk of his shell against hers after the deed was done.   I can’t imagine what it feels like to have a 550 pound tortoise climbs on top of me. But the prospect got me thinking about how other large animals on this planet mate — rhinocerous, hippopotumus, giraffe, elephant, etc.  What was amazing for me to think about was how we all aren’t that different from one another:  We all sleep, wake, eat, defecate, mate, give birth, and go about our respective daily routines with complete devotion to our personal well-being, until our time on the planet is over.  We all develop from fertile eggs, the main difference being that some of us put hard shells around our eggs and leave them outside the body to hatch while others, presumably the more possessive souls, hold onto our eggs until they have grown into miniature replicas of ourselves, at which point we eject them out into the world.  Of course, other aspects  of our physiologies may also differ.   For example, Aldabra tortoise hearts only beat 6 times a minute, one of the reasons why they live for so long.  But the point is, reptile or mammal, we both still have hearts that beat to their own drum.  Amazing.

About six months after mating, the female Aldabra trundles off to lay a clutch of  9 to 25 eggs in a shallow nest.  Apparently less than half are usually fertile, so only a few of them actually hatch into baby tortoises.  On Changuu island, there is an area where the females usually go to lay their eggs so tortoises-keepers at the sanctuary search it regularly so they can carefully retrieve the eggs, supervise them until they hatch, usually in February, at which point the babies are then carefully placed in a holding tank where they are nourished with watermelon.  After about 5 years in the first tank, they are released into progressively larger tanks and pens until they are big enough to join the larger adults, at about 15 years of age.  They can’t be released sooner than that, for fear that an adult will step and crush them, or mistakenly lie down on them, although I assume that this was not an issue when they were roaming free in their original habitat.

The first nursery didn’t look very big to me.  It seemed crowded and there appeared to be nothing except walk around and bump into someone else.   I wondered what it would be like to have to wait 5 years just to be moved up to the next two levels of pens for another 5 or so years respectively, before gaining some independence.   However, then I realized that this too was not all that different from what we do with our offspring.   Our young stay in a sort of holding tank with us for the first five years, then they go off to a bigger tank (school) with other youngsters to learn how to think in a certain way.  They progress from one intellectual tank to another for the next 13 years before we finally turn them lose to make their way in the world.

The cages in which we house our young are actually not that much bigger, relative to our size, than the ones that have been prepared for the tortoises on Changuu Island,  especially if we are raising our young in an apartment.  However, I  think that we have more to do to entertain ourselves while we reside in our growth tanks.   We also appear to have an advantage in that we get to leave our tanks under supervision.  Often, our parents drive us around in smaller wheeled boxes to visit other pens and cages of varying types and sizes — schools, doctor’s offices, camps, offices, places of worship, stores, and, of course, for those who think it important to entertain their young, amusement parks.  Other species appear to have less interest in entertaining their young than we do, but who knows what life was like for all of them before we came along and plundered the environment?   Perhaps mama tortoises, like mama ducks, used to take their children, once hatched, for daily walks.

My one thought during the neck massage was how my 152 year-old client’s neck, apart from the cool, dry, scaled skin, felt just like mine, with bumpy vertebrae and all, lined up in a row, although, admittedly, she had a lot more of them than I do.  And while I don’t personally believe in some mythical being in the heavens reaching down and spontaneously creating all the different species on the planet, when I stopped to consider the amazing variety of animals, mammals and reptiles that co-exist with us on the planet (if we haven’t killed or maimed them), all of whom engage in the same activities for survival, I can certainly understand why so many cultures of the world embrace on some version of this cosmology.   No doubt about it, life on earth is really quite magical.

Actually, love was in the air during my visit to Changuu in places other than the tortoise pen.      In another area of the island, I was able to watch a male peacock courting a female. Initially she appeared to be completely uninterested in his displays of fanned plumage, his twirling, his ruffling of his rear feathers, his shaking of all feathers, or his occasional screeched endearments.  However, I did note that she didn’t leave the general vicinity where he was “doing his thing”.   I had no idea what male peacocks go through to acquire a mate.   It looked like a lot of work to me.  He danced and twirled, opened and folded his colored plumes, ruffled and shook his brown tail feathers, and screeched.   All the while, she continued to gaze off in the opposite direction. However, another species on the island appeared much very intrigued by his display of unrequited love, assuming that holding little square objects in front of ones eyes, facing towards the male, and pushing a button, was an indication of interest in him.  The black-box-carrying-species also made little cooing and sighing noises occasionally, another sign of their interest, I assumed.

Finally, the female turned and fanned her short, plain feathers which I concluded must have been her way of expressing her admiration for his manner of proclaiming his love for her.  Very few of the black-box-carrying spectators stayed long enough to see her response. I wondered if this was intentional on her part.    For all I knew, her apparent disinterest in her future love might have only been a reflection of her reluctance to open her heart in front of non-peacocks.   Perhaps she, like her Muslim caretakers on the island, frown on public displays of affection. Perhaps she had just been waiting until she and her beau were alone to confide her true feelings.

Zanzibar is also home to red Colobus monkeys, Procolus kirkii.  Like the Aldabra tortoises, the Zanzibar red Colobus monkeys are among the most endangered species on the plant.   They total number is estimated to be about 2,000, the size of the population of humans who live in Putney, Vermont. Again, I recommend googling pics.  They have heads of hair that look like our caricatures of someone who has been electrocuted, with hair that spikes out in every direction above their black faces with white noses and lips, not unlike a punk rocker.  I wondered how their hairdressers got their hair to stick out so evenly in every direction without using a gel.  And, as would be expected from their name, they wear beautiful red, white, and black coats.  Once again, nature was working overtime when she created this amazing contrast to the giant tortoises.   Apparently, they are the only other creature in the world, besides humans, that eat charcoal.

The red Colobus monkey appears to enjoy an easy life in Zanzibar, now that they are protected. They traveled from branch to branch above our heads, nibbling on small fruits that were growing in abundance.  Like the female peacock, they paid absolutely no attention to the species that was peering up at them from below, again waving those black objects that made clicking noises.   I reflected upon how, long ago, I had stopping taking photographs when I realized that I was more concerned with how to get the best picture that I was with really experiencing what was in front of me.   Perhaps some people can do both.  I just know that I never could.   Either I could have the world, or a picture of it.  I opted for the former and have never regretted it.

Baby Colobus monkeys cling to their mother’s chests with tiny fingers grasping the fur on either side of their mother’s chests as they flatten their bodies again those of their mothers. I think they are also clutching the lowers corner of their mother’s abdomens with tiny toes, but it was difficult to see exactly how they were managing to stay attached to the mothers from a distance.  I enjoyed watching one toddler who was learning how to walk on branches. His only objective appeared to be to follow his mother around but I knew he was developing his ambulatory skills by tracking his mother.  I wondered when he would be old enough to go off on his own.  The guide confirmed that, indeed, the monkey sometimes fall to the ground.  Usually this occurs when they decide to walk on a branch that is too small to support their weight.  However, when such mishaps occur, they are unperturbed by their miscalculations.  They simply dust themselves off and hop back into their arboreal world.  I envied them their freedom to spend their days wandering midst lush green leaves, nibbling on all the yummy fruit they could eat.  All I could think was…some species have all the luck….

*The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Rwandan government.

2 thoughts on “Today, I gave a 152-year-old giant tortoise a neck massage….*

  1. Another very descriptive observation. Will google these animals but almost don’t need to since your descriptions are so vivid!


  2. Hi Ani, this is so awesome! I will look them up to see pictures. I miss seeing you. It would be nice to talk.


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