Leopard Tortoises are the most widely distributed of Africa’s tortoises, inhabiting habitats ranging from moist savannas to arid scrub, and from sea level to 2900m above. They feed on a wide variety of plants, especially grasses, succulents, forbs, flowering annuals and fallen fruit. They’ll also gnaw on bones or faeces to supplement their calcium intake, and are dependent on a reliable source of fresh water. It is mainland Africa’s largest species of tortoise, adults averaging 40cm in length with a weight around 13kg, though they can exceptionally grow to weigh 40kg under favourable conditions. Females are bigger than males.
Leopard tortoises are diurnal in habit and most active in the warmer months of the year. In very hot or very cold temperatures, they will take cover in dense vegetation, between or under rocks and logs, or in abandoned holes in the ground. They are surprisingly adept at swimming. As is well known in most species of chelonians, the Leopard Tortoise retracts into its carapace at the slightest sign of danger.
Leopard Tortoises only attain sexual maturity at between 12 and 15 years of age and are mostly solitary, except in the mating season. Males will fight over females in the mating season, which in South Africa stretches from September to April, and will attempt to turn each other over. Female leopard tortoises may lay multiple clutches of up to 30 (more usually 6-15) eggs during spring and summer in pits they dig with their hind feet in a sunny, well-drained spot. After laying she fills the hole again and stamps the ground flat with her feet and body. Depending on temperatures the eggs take from 8 to 15 months to hatch, often only after rain has softened the soil above them so that the hatchlings can dig themselves out. Females hatch from warmer nests while males develop at lower temperatures. Hatchlings are only 4-5 cm long and weigh only 20-50g. Eggs and young tortoises fall prey to most of Africa’s reptilian, avian and mammalian predators, and lions and hyenas will take adults occasionally. They are also very vulnerable to veld fires and often infested with ticks. Leopard Tortoises have lived to 75 years in captivity and some sources claim they could reach 100 years in the wild.
The Leopard Tortoise is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN, having a wide distribution in Eastern and Southern Africa. While still numerous in conservation areas, they are dwindling in numbers in areas with high human populations due to habitat modification, illegal collection from the wild for the pet trade (for which several countries have set up captive breeding programs) and to a lesser extent consumption as food. In South Africa they occur at least in parts of every province but can only be considered common in protected areas.
Leopard Tortoises are named for the mottled yellow-and-black carapace of young animals, which dulls and darkens with age.