The giants have arrived in the city... two Aldabra giant tortoises, that is to say. At an average length of 122 cm for a male and 91 cm for a female, and at an average weight of 250 kg for a male and 159 kg for a female, Aldabra tortoises are indeed giants of the tortoise world. And they arrived from thousands of kilometres away, from the Aldabra Atoll in the western Indian Ocean, part of the Seychelles Islands.
The flight from Seychelles landed in Kolkata yesterday. From the airport, the two tortoises were transported to Alipore Zoo, to a special quarantine room, where they would be kept for three weeks. Only after that would they be released in the open field inside the zoo where their predecessor, Adwaita used to stay.
A pair of Aldabra giant tortoises (Arkive)
‘The only one’
Adwaita, or ‘the only one’ in Bengali, was a darling of Alipore Zoo. It was one of its top draws. It was indeed an ‘only one’, the only Aldabra giant tortoise in India. At the time of its death it was estimated to be at least 150 years old. Some estimates put it at 250 years, in which case making it the world’s oldest-lived tortoise. It died in 2006 after a life truly well-lived!
Adwaita has an interesting history. It once belonged to Lord Robert Clive, the famous British military commander who won the battle of Plassey in 1757, and spent several years in his sprawling estate in Kolkata. More than a hundred years later, sometime in the 1870s, Carl Louis Schwendler, the founder of Alipore Zoological Gardens, had it shifted to the zoo, where it lived till its death.
The huge but quiet reptile was one of the most popular animals at the zoo – a giant in stature too. Ever since it died, the authorities had been looking for a replacement from the same species. Like its replacements now, Adwaita too came from the Seychelles. Now that the arrival of two similar Aldabra giants is imminent, people associated with the zoo are really excited.
Aldabra giant tortoise
Aldabra giant tortoises are endemic to the Aldabra Atoll of the Seychelles Islands. Primarily because of this, the four-island atoll has been made a UNESCO World Heritage site. It now retains some 152,000 of these tortoises. These tortoises have also been introduced to the island nations of Mauritius and Reunion Islands, and to the granitic islands of Seychelles such as Curieuse and Fregate However, Aldabra Atoll easily holds the largest population of these reptiles. Aldabra Atoll is of outstanding scientific interest. It is the only place in the world where a reptile (that is, the Aldabra giant tortoise) is the dominant herbivore.
Aldabra tortoises are not the only reason for the atoll’s World Heritage
status. Among the other reasons are its unique species of birds. The
island's isolation has allowed the evolution of a distinct fauna, with
two endemic birds (Aldabra brush warbler and Aldabra drongo) and another
11 that have distinct subspecies, among the most interesting of which
is the Aldabra white-throated rail, the last representative of the
western Indian Ocean flightless birds – all others have gone the way of
the dodo. There is no permanent human settlement. The resident
population is composed of employees of Seychelles Islands Foundation,
which looks after the islands, and visiting scientists.
Aldabra giant tortoises were once found throughout the islands of the western Indian ocean. However, killing it for its meat, mostly by European sailors from the 17th to the 19th centuries, drove it to extinction everywhere. By the middle of the 19th century, Aldabra Atoll was the only place where it could be found. Now of course it is a protected species, and its international trade is strictly regulated according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
This was one of the first species to be protected in order to ensure its
survival for the future. Charles Darwin and other notable
conservationists of the day along with the governor of Mauritius set
aside a captive breeding population on Mauritius as well as protecting
the Aldabra Atoll. The captive breeding programme still runs
successfully in Mauritius.
The thick, domed carapace (shell) of the tortoise is dark grey to black in colour and the robust limbs are covered in bony scales, as is the small, pointed head. The neck is very long, even for its great size, which helps the animal to exploit tree branches up to a metre from the ground as a food source. It has a predominantly vegetation-based diet although in the wild it will supplement this intake with carrion, sometimes of its own dead. In captivity, it is known to eat fruits such as apples and bananas too.
An Aldabra tortoise reaching for leaves in the Seychelles (payanke.com)
A happy beginning
Adwaita was one of the most popular residents of Alipore Zoo. He brought in many of the zoo’s visitors. He was popular among the zookeepers as well. As one of the zookeepers said after his death in March 2006, “This is a sad day for us. We will miss him very much.” His death had left a big void. Everyone is hoping that the pair of Aldabra giant tortoises being brought in would fill in that void, and have long and happy lives at the zoo.
An Aldabra giant tortoise caught by tide, in Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles (Panoramio)
Lead image: Arkive
Written by Anushtup Haldar for Team M3.tv