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Zimbabwe's 300-year-old tortoise going strong

Zimbabwe's 300-year-old tortoise going strong
Giant tortoise has seen generations as it lives in park, drawing crowds

By Jeffrey Moyo

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AA) - Trudging in the vicinity of his thatched hut and at times basking in the sun, a tortoise named Tommy exudes indisputable seniority over everyone, who curiously take turns snapping pictures of the centuries-old creature.

Sheltered at Lion Park on the outskirts of Harare, Tommy, approximately 250 years old and weighing half a ton, has drawn crowds for generations.

About a 30-minute drive west of Harare, Lion Park houses lions but is also home to Tommy for years, after he was brought there decades ago from neighboring Mozambique where he had lived for several decades.

Tommy is featured among other game species such as eland and duiker.

- Over two centuries aged

The Galapagos tortoise is thought to be more than 250 years old, but the current owner of the giant tortoise, Graeme Bristow, who is based in Mauritius, said nobody knows the tortoise’s exact age.

“He is between two and three hundred years old, but no one really knows,” Graeme, 52, told Anadolu Agency.

Having grown up in Zimbabwe looking after Tommy, Graeme left in 2007 to start a new company in Mauritius.

“Based on his size now and analyzing his shell pattern, we suspect he is way over 200 years old,” he said.

The Bristow family owns the Lion Park, which has been home for Tommy since he migrated from Mozambique in the 1970s.

“Tommy arrived in Mozambique in 1945 and was bought and kept by a Mrs. Trinidad in 1950 to 1970,” he said.

Recounting the journey that Tommy traveled over the years, Graeme said, “Tommy was on a ship in the early days as fresh meat for the sailors before refrigeration was on the old ships, in the days of scurvy when the sailors were traveling to distant lands.”

Graeme said it was during one of his journeys that Tommy came to be on the African continent, in the company of sailors passing through Mozambique.

“When the ship reached Mozambique, the sailors used to barter with the local market people and Tommy was exchanged for fresh veggies and fruits for their next voyage,” he said.

What Graeme could vividly recall was that before he joined the Bristow family, “Tommy was kept by family friends of my grandfather, Ossie, in Beira for many years on their farm.”

Graeme said before “1971, Tommy was handed as a gift to Ossie Bristow as Mrs. Trinidad was leaving Africa, and Ossie brought him to Zimbabwe.”

Beira is a port city in central Mozambique in southern Africa.

Graeme's parents were Viv and Carol while Joyce and Osric, commonly known as Ossie, were Viv’s parents, in fact, Graeme’s grandparents, who were given Tommy by a Mrs. Trinidad.

Unfortunately, Graeme said, his father died in 2019 at 75, leaving the Lion Park to him, including Tommy.

- Fleeing from war

The war in Mozambique took place in 1974 between liberation fighters against the colonial government of Portugal, with the conflict having started in September 1964, ending with a cease-fire a decade later.

Troubled by the Mozambican war, Graeme said his grandparents could not risk keeping Tommy in the troubled country and looked west to Zimbabwe for the tortoise’s new home.

His grandfather, Ossie, took Tommy “to the Lion Park and has been there since.”

Zimbabweans like Malory Ganyani, 44, said he has visited the Lion Park for years and remembers “sitting on Tommy and riding on his back as a child.” But Graeme objected, saying, “We don't allow that anymore.”

Graeme said people still flock to see what is believed to be one of the oldest animals in Africa and have a picture with him.

- Vegan tortoise

For Tommy’s longevity, Graeme said the giant tortoise is vegetarian -- “fed a carefully managed diet of fruits and vegetables, along with grass and hay.”

“The fiber is a very important part of his diet,” he added.

And Tommy, “has his own swimming pool, which supporters of our park recently fundraised to fix, as it had split.”

Graeme said the pool helps Tommy cool off and maintain healthy skin.

“Tommy has seen the changing of eras from Rhodesia, war, Zimbabwe, presidents,” he said. “He has met top ministers, presidents, dignitaries and also the common man and welcomed them all as equals to the Lion Park.”​​​​​​​

Just as Tommy has been passed from one generation to the next in his family, Graeme said, “he is also important for teaching everyone about conservation of wildlife, our own heritage, which we need to preserve for our kids and grandkids, as the greatest gift bestowed to Africa.”

Nomadic for more than two centuries, Tommy has nevertheless migrated from one master to the other – from the sailors in Mozambique to Mrs. Trinidad, then to generations of the Bristow family -- Ossie, Viv and Carol, Graeme’s parents -- and now to Graeme, heir to Lion Park handed down to him by his late father.

With Graeme domiciled in Mauritius, he said at Tommy’s home for decades, the Lion Park, “the park’s general manager Anthony Newall has since 2007 taken over the care of Tommy.”

source: News Feed
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