1 September 1996
SHE weighs 180kg, doesn’t look a day over 100, is partial to a tickle under the chin and just loves to eat hibiscus flowers – by the bouquetful.
She’s Harriet the Giant Galapagos Land Tortoise, 165 years old and still going strong at the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park at Beerwah.
This wonderful, dignified creature is one of Queensland’s best kept secrets.
While she’s certainly in the running for the oldest living creature on Earth title, Harriet has plenty more claims to fame.
One of the theories on how Harriet came to be in Australia is that she was collected by Charles Darwin during the voyages to the Galapagos Islands in 1836, which provided the basis for the iconoclastic book The Origin of Species.
Furthermore, the results of DNA tests carried out in Texas and released this November are expected to show Harriet is the last living example of her breed.
As those familiar with Darwin’s theories know, the Galapagos Islands produced many different species of the same genus through adaptation to the conditions on their particular island.
HARRIET’S species became extinct in the 1840s when a starving prison population on the island killed everything they could to eat.
Oral history has it that Harriet belonged to Captain John Clements Wickham and she once cruised the lawns of Newstead House, which has just had its 150th anniversary.
A visit to Harriet is quite awesome. While we feel we can commune with whales because they are mammals and brainy, reptiles usually leave us cold. But Harriet comes from a gregarious breed and has had very little tortoise company so has had to rely on people over the past 160 years or so.
Consequently she has a few tricks under her shell to make sure she gets plenty of human interaction.
Tracie McMichael, one of her keepers, says that when they go in to clean her enclosure she ambles over to them and lifts her ET-like head right out of her shell.
“We know we are supposed to give her a part so we pretend to ignore her, then she does another higher ‘look at me’ lift of her head and if we still ignore her she lets out a cry to be noticed,” said Tracie, as we watch Harriet come out of her shell in response to a good stroke on the neck.
Harriet has also modified her enclosure to suit her needs. She takes the morning sun near the observation bridge, wallows in a mud bath, rain permitting, that she has created for herself in another corner and uses the heat from a pile of composting leaves to warm her on cold nights.
And while she may be huge, Harriet has a fantastic, fluid grace about her as she lifts her head or when she decides to get up on to her feet that can best be described as hydraulic.
She eats her favourite food hibiscus from the mouth of her keeper and is a highly desirable sunning rock for lizards and birds. She knows they are there because a tortoise has a layer of skin with nerve endings on its shell, but doesn’t mind at all. The Reptile and Fauna Park is run by television’s Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin and his wife Terri who are a fount of information on Harriet and all the other park creatures – from Susan the Bird-eating Spider to Kelly the fox and Bruce the temperamental brolga.