Meet Africa’s Little Five: the Leopard Tortoise (1/5)


Africa’s “Little Five” animals are so-called because they share their names with the Big Five!

The leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis – “skilpad” in Afrikaans), like the leopard, can’t change its spots – but that doesn’t mean that it’s prohibited from growing them in a dozen dazzling different varieties.

These slow-moving but voracious reptiles haul their shells around practically every corner of sub-Saharan Africa, and the shells grow into a multitude of bumpy, horny mosaics, as a quick Google Image search will show you.

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I found this shy guy in the mountains above Fish Hoek, displaying what might be termed classic Cape coloring on his fairly young carapace. Leopard tortoises can grow rather large, and to sustain their shell-building at a good clip they need to consume quite a lot of calcium – which, being entirely herbivorous, they find solely in the grasses and shrubs that they meander through.

There is, unfortunately, something of a tortoise massacre happening in South Africa – perpetrated by our cars – and it’s considered de rigeur to stop, upon spotting a tortoise attempting to cross the road, gently pick the poor creature up (it will probably urinate, so hold it far away from your body), and usher it safely to the other side.