250 tortoise years, a life in slow motion
Posted Sunday, January 20 2013 at 14:01
A DAY WITH REPTILES. At a glance, the tortoises didn’t look anything over 10 years old, discovering that one was 250 years old was quite a shock. Nonetheless the writer had a great time spending the day at reptile stall learning about the creatures.
How long, in your estimation, would it take you to finish eating half a cabbage, if you were toothless and used only the edge of your mouth to chew? 30, maybe 40 minutes? It takes a thoroughly hungry 250-year-old tortoise about an hour and 15 minutes to devour the cabbage half.
In the same time, I had tried duplicating its eating mechanism on a banana, chapatti, and a stick of boiled cassava. 15 minutes into my endeavour, I gave up because failure seemed inevitable. Plus, I had begun attracting questioning glances from other patrons at the makeshift eatery.
We (tortoise, eatery patrons and I) were at a traditional arts exhibition held at the Saza headquarters in Mukono. The tortoise and its 50-year-old female cage-mate were under the care of handlers from Uganda Reptiles Village (URV). On how their age is determined, I learn that UVR uses a device based on body heat to determine each tortoise’s age. The device is attached to the tortoise’s back. The tortoise’s body heat makes the sensor rise like mercury in a thermometer, and the number it stops at marks the tortoise’s current age.
Mostly, the crowd was interested in URV’s snakes- one python, a spitting cobra, two vipers and two mambas. But the tortoises were curious too for an audience who wanted to see what an animal older than everyone present looked like and behaved.
A placid pair
At the fair, UVR brought two out of the 20 tortoises that they look after at their headquarters in Bunono village, Entebbe. For the visitors who thronged UVR’s stall, the tortoises were the least-threatening of the animals displayed. In addition to the snakes, the stall would have included a crocodile and a lion, had the special transport they require been found.
“Eh, banange its back is like a rough stone smoothed over by time. But the scales on its feet feel like steel wire when it rubs against the skin,” exclaimed one daring teenager who was among the first to take up handler Yasin Kazibwe’s offer to caress or hold them.
It took Kazibwe persuading the crowd that unlike their faster stall mates, tortoises are harmless and do not bite. Only then did the crowd tentatively reach out to feel them, with the 50-year-old clearly the favourite for her smoother shell plus smaller size and weight.
When he put them on the ground while he cleaned out their cage, the 50-year-old tottered forward a few quick steps before slowing its march to a crawl. A toddler who was standing in its trajectory stood transfixed, and Kazibwe exploited the moment to give a lesson in safety near reptiles.
“That child’s reaction is perfect for anytime you are faced with a reptile and you are unsure of its intentions towards you. Simply stand still and do not bother it. Most likely it will either leave you alone or fail to find you if say it is a snake which depends on your movement to locate you since it is technically blind,” he added.
But when he brought out the python and puff adder, the crowd stood way back from them, and watched with a collective mixture of revulsion and fascination as he held them and explained their moulting, sexual and feeding habits.
A tortoise’s mate
Curiosity inevitably went to how the tortoises court and reproduce. When Kazibwe seemed to be glossing over the details of how exactly the procreation process goes for tortoises, his visitors demanded more exact explanations-with one commanding an actual demonstration of the tortoise’s genitalia and what goes where.
“Like most in the animal kingdom, the male stands behind the female, inserts his organ and deposits reproductive fluid. Sorry, it seems boring compared to the snakes, which twine and weave over each other during those moments, but that is a tortoise’s life for you,” he mused.
The follow-up question came from an adolescent visitor; “So, how many children does it have now, at its age?” Kazibwe’s answer disappointed him slightly, “Most likely none yet, as far as we can tell from our examination of its physical history.”
A South-bound tortoise
Originally from the arid Karamoja area, the tortoise found its way to Bunono in Entebbe at URV’s home in 2009. This was courtesy of a good samaritan who first spotted three of them and called URV when he saw their phone contact off a signpost as he sped by it.
“We quickly mobilised a car and fuel, drove to the location he directed us to, and retrieved the two we found when we got there. But this was the easy part, getting them acclimatized to their new home required extra creativity on our part,” narrated the handler.
It involved burying a cage in sand to fool the tortoises into thinking they were not in captivity. Weeks later, they had gotten used to the cages.