|319075. Fri Apr 18, 2008 4:37 am
|On the subject of dodos - and of naive animals being eaten to death - I did Giant Tortoises for the animal book; here’s what I done:
The world’s longest-lived vertebrate is also, according to scores of accounts over several centuries, by far the most edible creature man has ever encountered. Not surprisingly, there aren't many giant tortoises left.
They were first discovered by explorers and sailors in the 16th century. Immediately, people began raving about their unbelievable deliciousness, comparing them variously to chicken, beef, mutton and butter - but only to say how much better tortoise meat was than the very best of the aforementioned. One giant tortoise would feed several men, and both its meat and its fat were perfectly digestible, no matter how much of it you ate.
Oil made from tortoise fat was efficacious against colds, cramps, indigestion and all manner of “distempers.” (It tasted good, too.) The liver was a peerless feast on its own, and the bones were rich with gorgeous marrow. Then there were the eggs - inevitably, they too were the best eggs anyone had ever eaten. Some sailors were reluctant to try tortoise meat because the animal was so amazingly ugly - but one taste, and they were soon converted.
It wasn’t just the taste, wholesomeness and digestibility of the tortoise that doomed it. Even more useful to sailors in areas where there was little other foraging to be had was that tortoises could be taken alive on board ship, and killed and eaten as and when necessary. They could survive for at least six months without food or water, and didn't move about much. Thus, countless tens of thousands of animals which, as individuals, had lived for decades, even for a century or more, ended their lives butchered on deck, their shells and bones tossed over the side.
Giant tortoises can drink enough at one session to last them for several months. They store the water in special bladders. Needless to say, the sailors soon discovered this too; a carefully butchered tortoise could provide a thirsty mariner with several gallons of cool, perfectly drinkable water.
At the beginning, there were vast numbers of tortoises on the islands. One early report speaks of sometimes seeing three thousand together, so that one could walk on their shells for some distance without touching the ground. The same writer mentions that the herds of tortoises, which are completely deaf, would always post sentries - which was puzzling, because they had no natural enemies, and even if they had had, they had no way of defending themselves, and were so slow moving that they couldn't flee.
Giant tortoises are probably descended from normal-sized tortoises***, their ancestors being animals which were accidentally carried by the sea to remote islands (notably the Galapagos, Seychelles and Mauritius) where - finding no predators or competitors, plenty of food and a perfect climate - they just got bigger and bigger. Evolutionary scientists call this gigantism, and it’s often seen in isolated ecosystems. Their heads are too big to be withdrawn into their shells - they went for so many millennia without being attacked, that the ability to protect themselves in this way faded out. The biggest Galapagos tortoise ever known weighed 270kg.
No-one really knows how long a giant tortoise can live. A lot longer than 100 years - that's for certain - but claims of 200+ are common, though hard to prove. They don’t become sexually mature until they're about 25 (when copulating, their bellows can be heard 100 yards away.) They compete in neck-stretching competitions to establish rank; the one who can stick his neck out furthest is the winner.
So: there were thousands of them, they didn't run away, they didn't need feeding or watering, so you could keep them alive until you wanted them, and they were the best food ever. The only problem at all was that they weighed so much that it took several men much labour to carry one tortoise back to the ship, dead or alive. Smaller ones could have their limbs tied together, and be carried on a man’s back like rucksacks.
It was 300 years before the giant tortoise first received a scientific name, because the specimens were always eaten before they got back to the scientists. The giant tortoises, more than any other creatures, inspired Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection. But it wasn't until Darwin got home from his famous voyage on the Beagle that he realised the importance of the tortoises. Sadly, he had brought back no specimens, alive or dead or even in bits, except for one juvenile pet. He and the crew had indeed taken dozens of tortoises on board - but they’d scoffed the lot, and (as usual) chucked the remains overboard.
The giant tortoises unwittingly assisted in the extermination of the dodo and various whales, too. Dutch visitors to Mauritius named dodos “Disgusting Birds,” because they were such vile eating that even starving men could hardly stomach them. But - wouldn't you know - they found they could force dodo meat down when it was dressed with tortoise oil, which was held to be “superior in taste to that of the olive.”
(In the 1890s, whole populations of tortoises were macheted to death purely for their oil - the flesh was left to rot - with each animal yielding about three gallons of oil.)
Large-scale commercial whaling in the 19th century was only made possible because the giant tortoises enabled ships to stay at sea for weeks at a time, hunting way out to sea where the whales lived. Without that miraculous food supply, the industry could never have existed. Whaler crews called their tortoise-harvesting expeditions “turpining,” from a mispronunciation of terrapin. One ship’s log records turpining parties taking fourteen tonnes of live tortoises on board one ship in four days.
On many islands, the giant tortoises were extinct by 1800. In many cases, it took just a few decades to eat entire species of giant tortoise from the face of the earth.
Giant tortoises were declared a protected species on the island of Aldabra in 1875 [The first ever protected species?], after a campaign by a British Museum expert. When the Seychelles became independent in the 1970s, its new government passed strict conservation laws making it almost impossible for any human to visit Aldabra.
Throughout the Victorian age it was assumed - by those who knew or cared - that giant tortoises would go entirely extinct any day, but in fact several species are still alive today.
Sources: A sheltered life: the unexpected history of the giant tortoise by Paul Chambers (John Murray, 2004).
*** Although at least one source suggests that giant torts are the last survivors of an age when giant versions of animals which we now know in their small sizes were common on earth.