By VERLYN KLINKENBORG
Published: March 28, 2006
Every now and then, the world marks the death of an exceptionally old human being, like Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122. But today we pause to note the death of Adwaitya, an Aldabran tortoise who died last Wednesday at the Calcutta zoo. He is believed to have been about 250, nearly 80 years older than the next-oldest animal, a 176-year-old Galapagos tortoise living in Australia. We are ready simply to marvel at the fact of living to such a great age. But tortoise watchers of an earlier era were more likely to wonder why tortoises lived to such a great age.
The classic statement comes from Gilbert White, the 18th-century naturalist, who had a tortoise of his own to watch. "It is a matter of wonder," he wrote, "to find that Providence should bestow such a profusion of days, such a seeming waste of longevity, on a reptile that appears to relish it so little."
Such a very old tortoise as Adwaitya, which means "the one and only," must have wondered, in turn, why Providence bestows such short lives upon humans. He had lived in the Calcutta zoo since 1875 and was one of four tortoises captured from Aldabra — which one tortoise historian calls a "low coralline atoll ... in a little-visited part of the Indian Ocean about 400 kilometers north of Madagascar" — and presented to Lord Robert Clive, who was the architect, if that is the word, of the British empire in India. If Adwaitya was truly 250, he was born in the same year as Mozart.
No species really understands the life span of another species. We are as puzzled by the brevity of a mayfly's life as we are by the longevity of Adwaitya's. But what puzzles us isn't the chronology of these lives — the way they stretch, or don't stretch, across the calendar. It's the thought of being in them. What makes it all the harder to imagine is the very difference in the way that humans and tortoises age. A woman who has lived to be 122 is merely a husk of herself. At 122, Adwaitya was still a comparative youth, with more than half his life to go. We will suppose that he relished it right up to the end.