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THE LEOPARD TORTOISE


These creatures are quiet, dignified and vulnerable.  Creatures of habit  -   fascinating to those who admire their simplicity and longevity.   Looking at a large tortoise or turtle gives one a feeling of timelessness and mystery ; of  time long past human beginnings. 
Their calm slow movements bely an amazing sense of preservation.  They are acutely aware of their environment and the other creatures within the territories they inhabit. They are sensitive to any sudden change.  At the slightest hint of danger they will  either keep dead still, retract their head and neck into their shells, or if all else fails, move surprisingly fast to find shelter under bushes  as well as digging down with their strong legs and claws deep into soil and under rocks and shrubs for safety.  If flooding occurs, they will swim and so manage to survive.  Their vulnerability  to human encroachment and folly (in the case of fires) and disappearance of natural habitat (for instance highways, networks of country roads) make it a matter of great concern that in fact their numbers are falling far beyond expectations.  Taken away from natural parks by well meaning persons, tortoises find themselves in backyards in suburbs where swimming pools, dogs and other hazards also diminish their numbers.  And of course, folklore and witchcraft  are also a factor which threaten their numbers.

In the wild, ticks ants and other insects are irritating for tortoises.  They manage to eradicate this nuisance by soaking themselves in shallow warm puddles and in this way the plastron is kept clean, supple and any insects inside the shell, drown .
Jackals, wild cats , birds of prey, crows and other predators are a very real threat in the wild 
They do drink water and if there isn’t any readily available, they obtain moisture from the food they eat. (In the bush, tortoises rely on very dry (almost white) excreta from foxes, birds, jackals etc for calcium.)  They also forage and eat vegetation under shrubs and bushes. 
Egg shells found in the wild and  sun dried soft bones also supplement the calcium necessary to keep a healthy strong shell. 
Even in winter conditions tortoises will emerge and browse for a few hours if the weather is warm enough.    It is fair to say  they are “solar powered” and react with the temperatures around them. 
Tortoises change sleeping places occasionally  in order to outwit any predators.

Male tortoises have a long tail and females have a short fat tail.  The females live harmoniously with each other and you will notice very quickly if you have a male among the females.  The males are very territorial and in summer have a strong mating urge.  They are very strong and if another male is encountered during this time they will readily do battle, the one trying to overturn the other on its back. The mating habits are strange to say the least.  They rely on “chance encounters” in the wild and the male tortoise will ram the female from behind  or her side with his horn which protrudes from under his neck,  bite her shell and also nip her back legs and in effect “terrorise” her into submission if necessary  When he mounts the female a loud hissing sound will ensue.
 Female tortoises become very stressed if the male is with her continually and a weight loss will occur. 

Gestation of eggs in the female takes about 6 to 8 weeks and when she is ready to lay her eggs she will find a suitable place preferably nice soil which is not too hard to dig up.  A deep funnel shape will be scraped into the soil, eggs deposited and then softly and gently covered up with her legs.  In about another two months, depending on the temperature in the soil, the eggs should hatch unless the soil has become so hard that the hatchlings cannot dig their way out.  The temperatures where the eggs are laid will determine the sex of the hatchlings.
 

Trish Scragg
 


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