🐾 Maybe the reason I love animals so much, is because the only time they have broken my heart is when theirs has stopped beating.

* Caring for your Leopard Tortoise


It’s a late-Autumn afternoon and the day is balmy. It’s just after 3pm and in a couple of hours it will be cold, that nip that is not yet icy yet but cold enough to send my tortoise, her name is Torti and she’s a Leopard Tortoise, scuttling for some shelter. And she doesn’t surface until late the next morning, weather permitting and if there’s lots of sunshine. Hibernation is close for her and soon she will only venture out for short periods during the next couple of winter months.

Whilst tortoises in our climate here in South Africa do not strictly “hibernate”, they do go through a “slowdown” of all activity. They will sleep more and eat less and generally just “park off” each day. Some will dig themselves into a “burrow” and remain there for long periods. Besides cover that I offer, Torti has several places in her enclosure where she prefers to spend the colder days. Other than a general health check every now and again, I leave her alone but do check daily to see if she might have come out and then offer her some food.

One of Torti’s hide-outs

Another one of Torti’s hide-outs

Torti was rescued from certain death, as she was destined for the pot, having been caught by some locals, who also use certain body parts of tortoises for “muti”. (Muti is a term for traditional medicine in Southern Africa as far north as Lake Tanganyika. The word muti is derived from the Zulu word for tree, of which the root is -thi. In Southern Africa, the word muti is in widespread use in most indigenous African languages, as well as in South African English and Afrikaans where it is sometimes used as a slang word for medicine in general.)

She arrived scarcely bigger than my hand and in the 7 years she has been with me, has grown to a fair size.

Besides the fact that I enjoy her company, the only reason she is still with me is the fact that I’m afraid she will be caught again as well as the raging veld fires we have every winter, which almost certainly means death for any tortoises in its path.

Torti’s enclosure – 28m x 10m

If you are considering keeping a tortoise, these large tortoises need a large area if confined in an enclosure, though it is preferable to give them the run of your garden if possible. If you cannot do this (which I couldn’t, nothing was safe from Torti’s voracious appetite, especially the Echeverias!) and have to construct an enclosure, work on a minimum of a 6m x 4m area for two tortoises.

Tortoises are wanderers and in the wild occupy a home range of from 1 to 3 square kilometres. Few sights are more pathetic than seeing one trudge endlessly around the perimeter of its pen in either dust or mud, compliments of the weather.

Torti’s enclosure last summer – lots of indigenous grasses to feed on as well is Kikuyu

The area should be sunny, and well planted with different grasses and plants for natural feeding. A lack of exercise leads to muscular problems and should be avoided. An arid grassy area is much preferred, with dry sandy areas for sunbathing. This tortoise requires large amounts of grasses in its diet, and it is a common mistake in captivity to feed exclusively on ‘wet’ kitchen food. On the correct diet their droppings should be well formed and fibrous.

Just a short note on safety – please check your enclosure regularly for any bits of plastic, plastic bags, bits of string or any other harmful objects that might somehow end up in the enclosure that could harm your tortoise.

A thatched umbrella in Torti’s enclosure offers me a space where I can sit and enjoy Torti’s antics, do a couple of sketches and Torti often utilises the shade here during the hottest summer days.

Some Leopard tortoises will utilize a sleeping area constructed out of poles with a roof, or a drum on its side, but many, like Torti, prefer to creep under large grassy plants such as Pampas grass, where they are sheltered from any adverse weather. However, she is often found in her Zulu hut, above, either sheltering from the sun or on very cold days.

They are commonly kept as pets and adapt well to captivity in most areas barring coastal Natal where the humidity affects them adversely. But it is of the utmost importance that you pay close attention to their diet and keep it as natural as possible. It is a common mistake in captivity to feed exclusively on ‘wet’ kitchen food. Too much kitchen food leads to diarrhoea and other digestive problems and should be avoided. On no account should dog/cat food be provided – these are high in protein which results in shell deformities and in the long term, in kidney disease. In the veld, the leopard tortoise will stuff its huge body with just about anything it comes across, be it grasses, succulents, aloes, fungi, wild fruits and berries, millipedes, snails, faeces (especially an hyena’s), reptile and birds’ eggs and the corpses of small animals such as frogs and mice.

Torti having breakfast under the thatch umbrella

There is a lot of diet information for your tortoise on the internet, but a diet that has served me well for the past 7 years that Torti has been with me, is as follows :

Lettuce –
although the general consensus is to NOT feed lettuce, lettuce is high in nitrates and is converted in the mouth into compounds that produce nitric oxide – a potent antibacterial chemical. The “disinfectant” effect of this chemical was tested and salivary production was high enough to kill even E.coli 0157 (the deadly bacterium that is so often responsible for outbreaks of food poisoning). Along with a good balanced diet it can actually be beneficial in small portions. What is NOT recommended is a diet of lettuce alone as this will not provide all the nutrients your tortoise needs.

Celery – both the stalks and the leaves


Baby Marrow

Apple – in small amounts as it is considered a “soft” food

Chopped cooked chicken – I have heard that you can give them the bones, but I don’t, too scared they might get stuck in her throat, especially chicken bones

Sliced cucumber

Sliced butternut/pumpkin

2 or 3 Echeveria elegans leaves


Geranium leaves

Raw egg and some egg shell

Not all of this is offered in one go – I take turns using 5 or 6 of the ingredients for one meal, which is normally served early in the morning.

Indigenous grasses

In addition, she has access to various grasses and weeds in her enclosure, including Kikiyu grass (Pennisetum clandestinum), Dew grass (Eragrostis pseudo-obtusa), Beesgras (Urochloa pantcoides), Dandelion (Taraxacum) and Veld grass (Ehrhartacalycina).



Weeds like Taraxacum officinale (Dandelion), Tribulis terrestris (common dubbeltjie), Salsify and Galinsoga parviflora (Small flowered quickweed) is also available in her enclosure.

A further variety of foods includes a variety of leafy greens such as collard greens, mustard greens, red leaf lettuce, green leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, dandelion greens, hibiscus leaves and flowers, green onions, spinach, green beans, zucchini, frozen mixed vegetables, timothy hay, and alfalfa. They can also be fed almost any other vegetables. Fruits should only make up about 10% of their diet.

The pond has is very shallow on all sides, offering rocks and logs to make climbing out easily in case of an emergency and gradually deepens towards the centre.

Leopard tortoises readily drink standing water. A shallow water dish may be provided, but check it daily, and clean it as required. The size of the water dish doesn’t really matter, however it shouldn’t be too deep where the tortoise could get stuck in the dish. Torti has access to fresh water in a dish as well as the pond which is situated in her enclosure. Leopard tortoises love to swim and, judging by the length of time Torti often spends in the water, she loves it!

Torti basking on a sunny sand spot

Leopard tortoises (Geochelone pardalis pardalis) live between 50 and 100 years in the wild and can weigh as much as 100 pounds (about 45kgs) and measure 26 inches (68cm) front to back. The difference between a male and female tortoise is the male has a cup-like depression toward the forward half of the plastron (the bottom shell or “stomache”). It’s there so he can mount the female without having to stand on his tail to fertilize her. The female’s plastron, like Torti’s, is flat.

Torti also shares here enclosure with a frequent visitor – Molly, the Mole Snake. She is extremely welcome as we have a real problem with rats. After Molly’s stay of a couple of days, there is nary a rat to be seen anywhere!

In late Autumn and winter, the indigenous grasses offer Torti lots of shelter from the elements. Only the Kikuyu grass is mowed, the rest is allowed to grow wild.

It is of course against the law to keep reptiles in captivity without a permit and in happier instances the owner of a newly acquired tortoise will apply for one. An official from Nature Conservation will then make sure that the facilities in which the reptile is to be kept are adequate and that the captive will be fed a proper diet.


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