A photo of a large tortoise, accompanied by a tear-jerking caption about how the oldest tortoise in Africa just died at – wait for it – 344 years old, has been circulating on social media over the past few days. We decided to take a closer look, to find out if any elements of such a fantastical story could possibly be true.
The photo was shared more than 6,400 times on Twitter and a single Facebook post, by a user in Cameroon, was shared more than 1,700 times. The caption varied depending on the post, but one widely shared one in French reads: “Aged 344, the oldest tortoise in Africa – known as Alagba – is no more."
The original post is archived here.
If you do a reverse image search on the tortoise photo using TinEye (check out our guide to find out how to use this search tool), you’ll pull up this same photo, which was published in a May 2014 article on the website ZooBorns, where animal births in zoos across Australia are recorded.
The photo on ZooBorns hasn’t been cropped and you can see a few baby tortoises in front of the bigger one. "Two endangered Galapagos tortoises have hatched at Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Australia,” the article reads. “The tiny tortoises emerged from their shells on January 24 and 26."
Screengrab of the photo as published on the website Zooborns in May 2014.
The FRANCE 24 Observers reached out to Taronga Western Plains Zoo, located in Dubbo, Australia. The press officer Mandy Turner confirmed that the tortoise in the photo was one of theirs:
It’s a giant Galapagos tortoise and not an African tortoise [editor’s note: Galapagos tortoises are a species endemic to the Galapagos Islands archipelago, a province of Ecuador in the Pacific].
The tortoise in this photo is still living and is just over 50 years old. Galapagos tortoises can live to be about 150 years old.
Who is Alagba the tortoise?
However, it turns out that Alagba the tortoise, which is mentioned in several posts, did actually exist. On October 4, 2019, staff of the palace of Ogbomoso in the state of Oyo, Nigeria, announced the death of Alagba, a tortoise which lived there until, they claimed, the ripe old age of 344 years old.
During its life, the reptile had become quite the tourist attraction; according to the BBC, it was said to have special healing powers.
This Tweet claims that Alagba the tortoise was 324 years old when she died. The palace, however, claimed she died at 344.
However, the BBC spoke to several experts who contested the palace’s claims about Alagba's age: this particular species [editor’s note: according to one expert, an African spur-thighed tortoise] could live to 200 years at best.
British herpetologist John Wilkinson told the BBC the most likely scenario was that there had been a few Alagbas.
"They loved it so much they went and bought another one," he said.
It’s hard to know which is the world’s oldest tortoise. Currently, the oldest on record is Jonathan, on the island of St. Helena, a British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic Ocean. Jonathan is at least 187 years old.
Jonathan the tortoise is shown at home in St. Helena in March 2016.
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