Why the demand for tortoises?
The craze for tortoises took hold a long time ago when scientists and other naturalists started describing the great variety and spectacular diversity of South African tortoises. People got to know about angulate, leopard, geometric, tent, parrot-beaked and hinged tortoises and wanted to have their own for the backyard. The fashion for exotic pets saw thousands of South African tortoises – mostly from the Cape and mostly angulate tortoises – collected by the truckload and shipped off to the United Kingdom in the 1950s and 1960s. What could be more unusual than an African pet?
Imagine for a minute how a tortoise, adapted to life in a Mediterranean climate with cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers and a wild diet particular to the habitat, would fare in a London backyard with the odd leaf or two of a foreign plant as food and gloomy weather all year long. No wonder 90+ tortoises out of every 100 that landed in the UK did not survive.
Do not move me around
Some tortoises are so well-adapted to a particular region, climate and ecosystem, they find it difficult to survive elsewhere – a tortoise used to a Succulent Karoo diet won’t survive on a grassland diet, for example. Other species have been more successful at crossing boundaries between ecosystems and are equally well-adapted to the coastal regions of Namaqualand and the succulent thickets of the Eastern Cape. But this does not mean that they can be moved from one area to another without causing trouble.
Recent research into the unique genetic make-up of South African tortoises has shown that there may be two or more species hiding inside a single described species. Transferring individuals between these gene pools is bad for conservation, because under natural conditions the animals would remain separate and the gene pools pure. Releasing animals into areas outside their natural distribution range can also lead to the introduction of foreign germs into an otherwise healthy population.
A wild tortoise is used to its natural diet and irregular drinking water – tortoises store water in their bladders for dry periods. Fully adapted to its natural surroundings, a tortoise uses the same set of different shelters over time and within a reasonably well-demarcated home range. Tortoises are usually found on their own – they do not move in pairs or family groups – and usually follow specific routes to forage or seek mates. Roads, however, cross many of these routes and cut through their home ranges.
These quirky-looking creatures are fully capable of looking after themselves under very harsh conditons and are effective in finding shelter against predators. Their body design, physiology and lifestyle have allowed them to survive life on Earth for millions of years. Yet this recipe for success counts against them in surviving man’s influence on Earth. Because tortoises take long to mature sexually and produce relatively few offspring (not all of which survive), they cannot keep pace with a rapidly changing world.
It must be lonely
Driving on one of the thousands of roads criss-crossing South Africa, you might spot a lonely tortoise crossing the road and think it must be ‘lost’. You might even insist on picking it up and taking it home to look after it because “it’s the right thing to do”, never mind if home is in Gauteng or Port Elizabeth or Cape Town.
The worst thing that can happen to a Karoo tent tortoise, for example, is to be picked up in the dry season on the N1 – first losing all the precious water and urine meticulously stored over months to survive the dry season, and then ending up in a backyard with a diet of the odd lettuce leaf and fruit. The tortoise might survive for the first few weeks, but it won’t be long before it will start losing weight, become diseased and die. Releasing the tortoise in the nearest veld is no solution, as it could compromise the health of an entire tortoise population in the wild.
The take home message is NOT to pick up tortoises in the veld or on roads and take them home with you. The best you can do for them is to move them to a safe area off the road or just admire them in their natural habitat.
CapeNature aim to conserve healthy populations of wild tortoises in their natural habitats together with conservation-minded landowners, who, in many instances, have the future of some species such as the critically endangered geometric tortoise in their hands.
If you are on the roads over the festive season, please look out for tortoises. Don’t run them over and please don’t pick them up and take them home!
Above: taken at De Mond Nature Reserve by Kate Collins
- South Africa, and in particular the Cape, has the richest diversity of tortoises in the world. Of the 40 species of tortoise known, South Africa has 12 species and two subspecies.
- South Africa's species include the smallest tortoise, the Namaqualand speckled padloper (Homopus signatus signatus), and one of the rarest, the geometric tortoise (Psammobates geometricus).
- The leopard tortoise is the most wide spread throughout South Africa.
- Wild fires are one of the extreme threats to slow moving tortoises.
- All tortoises are protected by law in South Africa and may not be killed, captured or kept in captivity.
Images by Atherton de Villiers