Working with giant tortoises

Having loved reptiles ever since I was a little girl, getting the opportunity to work with giant tortoises was very much a dream come true for me. I learned a great deal about these amazing creatures over the 6 months I was working in Mauritius and the more time I spent with each tortoise, the more I came to recognise each of their distinct personalities.

A typical day for me started at 6am cleaning and filling the water troughs around the island. During the dry season when there is so little rainfall, most of the tortoises would gather around these troughs first thing in the morning, waiting for me to fill them. Sometimes they would get a little impatient if I wasn’t working fast enough and would nudge me out of the way before I had finished filling them.

A baby Aldabra giant tortoise

Then came my favourite part of the day, feeding the baby tortoises in the tortoise nursery. There were up to 100 tortoises in the nursery, most of them were little older than a year, measuring around 15cm in length. These tortoises were born in the wild on Ile Aux Aigrettes and brought into the nursery so their health could be monitored before being released onto Round Island as part of the habitat restoration programme. Each morning I would feed them fresh leaves mixed with either grated pumpkin, cassava or chayote. Almost as soon as I’d put the plate on the ground, the tortoises would gather around the food, munching away happily. I always found it fascinating that something which sat in the palm of my hand, weighing little more than 100 grams, could one day live to be over 1.2 metres long, weigh over 200 kilograms and possibly outlive me by around 80 years.

The rest of my day was usually taken up searching for each adult tortoise on Ile Aux Aigrettes and gathering data on where on the island they each like to spend their time and what plants they were eating. Once every few months I, along with a team of about 6 people, would attempt to measure and weigh each of the adult tortoises. As you can image this resulted in a lot of sore backs and plenty of scratches by the end of the day. Almost a year on and I still have a mark on my leg from where one of the heavier, more aggressive tortoises stamped on me during one of these weighing sessions.

Me with george

I can also say with a fair amount of confidence that I am one of the few people in the world who has been kicked in the face by a giant tortoise. In order to measure the tortoise we used a large set of scales with a raised platform where we placed the tortoise so its legs were hanging free. As I bent down beneath the tortoise to measure its underside, known as the plastron, I looked up just in time to see a leg kick out with the force of 100 kilograms worth of tortoise before it made contact right between my eyes. That red mark stayed on my face for some days afterwards.

I can honestly say I had one of the most amazing 6 months of my life working with the tortoises in Mauritius. Even now I am so sad that I don’t get to see them every day and I do miss their fun personalities. I guess that is a good excuse for me to go back there one day.  

Check out the video below where I introduce you to some of the Aldabra giant tortoises of Ile Aux Aigrettes.

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