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Love begins at 40 hopes Auckland Zoo


June 10, 2002

Love begins at 40 hopes Auckland Zoo

After 40-odd years as a bachelor and a month in quarantine at Auckland Zoo, Oupa the leopard tortoise is ready to share a home with two young females.

It's a big step for the "old man" who's travelled the world but never been ‘in love’. But staff say he's in top condition and are hopeful that romance(s) will blossom some time in the future with fellow leopard tortoises Kopjie and Ufutu who will share a home with Oupa in the Zoo's aquarium from tomorrow.

The trio are the only leopard tortoises in New Zealand. Classified as vulnerable, they are found only in Africa - from southern Sudan and Ethiopia, and southwards through eastern Africa to Natal and South Africa. Destruction of their habitat and selling of them through the illegal food and pet trades are the cause for their decreasing numbers.

Kopjie (Afrikaans for hill) and Ufutu (Afrikaans for leopard) are now six years old. They were confiscated by MAF at Wellington Airport as babies, then each only the size of a 50-cent piece.

Oupa has a long and colourful history. The now-10kg reptile was given to 85-year-old Mrs Eleanor Hannah and family by her daughter's friend in the Christmas of '58 when the Hannahs were living in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Daughter Elizabeth and friend, who were at boarding school in Cape Town, carried him with them on their four-day train journey home, leaping out of the train when it stopped to collect grass, and seeking out train staff for spare lettuce leaves for their VIP tortoise. Oupa soon joined 19 other tortoises and numerous other creatures in Eleanor Hannah's garden.

Six years later Oupa travelled with the Hannahs to the United Kingdom before flying out to New Zealand where Dr Hannah took up a position at Cherry Farm psychiatric hospital. Home has been Dunedin since 1968, but there have been plenty of holidays in Queenstown and Wanaka as well.

"I've had so much fun with him, and I believe he's kept me young. But now that my husband and I are getting older, and Oupa could live another 70 years, it seemed only fair that we find him a new home," says Nora Hannah, who gifted Oupa to Auckland Zoo in early May.

But she has an open invitation to visit any time she likes, and will be at the Zoo tomorrow to say a big hello and see how her surrogate son greets his new mates.

"Tortoises aren't generally social creatures, but these three are all used to company, so we feel they should get on pretty well. Oupa has had E.T. a male Congo tortoise as company, and our females have had each other so they're conditioned to like company," says team leader of the Zoo's reptile section Peter West.

Eleanor Hannah admits that her surrogate son Oupa has been rather indulged, and having spent so much time with people, has developed a real personality.

"He definitely likes his own way. We have a woman who comes to hand mow our lawns. Whenever Oupa heard the mower he would go into a corner and eye her and then almost charge her. It was like he was playing a game and letting it be known he didn't want the grass or his dandelion heads cut."

Watching him sitting in front of a heater in his new enclosure (heated throughout to 25 degrees during the day and up to 20 degrees at night) munching on his favourite food beans, he certainly gives the impression he knows how to get what he wants. Look out Kopjie and Ufutu!


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