Zoo solves tortoise problem with lure of tomatoes

Photo: Paignton Zoo

Weighing giant tortoises is a problem. The clue is in their name; at anything between 75 and 200 kilos, they can be more than 200 times the weight of your average domestic pet tortoise.

Paignton Zoo is home to six Aldabra giant tortoises. Catching up with these unhurried hulks is not an issue, but their sheer size is. Five fit zoo keepers can just about pick one up, but that’s not an especially good solution either for the keepers or the tortoise. Curator of Lower Vertebrates and Invertebrates Mike Bungard has the answer:

“Tomatoes! The tortoises are trained to walk up onto the scales by themselves. Target training means we can move them cooperatively – they follow the target to get a treat. Strawberries and tomatoes are their favourites – though as tortoises can see in infrared, it might just be that they are attracted to red things! It’s simple – and saves a lot of back-ache.”

Photo: Paignton Zoo

Photo: Paignton Zoo

The Zoo’s six giant tortoises range in size from 75 kilos to 208. Altogether the group weighs in at 744 kilos, which is 1,640 pounds or 117 stone – that’s around three-quarters of a tonne of tortoise, very nearly the weight of a supermini.

Elvis is the largest at 208 kilos – that’s 458 pounds or nearly 33 stone – while the smallest is Dora at a mere 75 kilos. Timmy is 176 kilos, Sophie 106, Miley 84 and Cleo 95. Elvis is said to be the largest tortoise in the entire country.

Veterinary Associate Christa van Wessem said: “We don’t check them regularly, but as and when needed or when one of them seems off colour. We look at their demeanour, we look for signs of illness like nasal or eye discharges, how they breathe, what their faeces look like, any indication of injury or skin abnormalities. They are difficult animals to examine because their shell hides a lot of their body, and if they decide not to cooperate, there is not much we can do about that…!”

The Aldabra giant tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea) comes from the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles. It’s one of the largest tortoise species in the world and is listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

“The keepers had noticed that Dora was a bit quiet. Usually, on a nice sunny day, she is the first one to go outside, but lately she’s been staying behind. In animals like these – and reptiles in general – it is very difficult to tell if something is wrong. We are lucky that the keepers know the individual animals and their characters very well. This meant that they were able to flag their concern about her change in behaviour sooner rather than later.

“I examined her and did some tests. We took radiographs, which is difficult due to their size. This is why we weighed them, because it lets us see how they are developing. Weight loss can be an indication of illness. They are great animals to work with though, and it is nice to see how each of them has its own character! Thankfully, at the moment, Dora seems to be a bit better again.”

The six are all thought to be about 30 years old, having come to Paignton Zoo for safekeeping after being confiscated by customs officials. Paignton Zoo Environmental Park is a registered charity. For more information go to www.paigntonzoo.org.uk or ring 0844 474 2222.

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