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Care and Maintenance of the Leopard Tortoise, Geochelone pardalis

A.C.Highfield and Jill Martin

The Leopard tortoise is a large and attractively marked tortoise, which has a wide distribution in sub-Saharan Africa, including recorded localities in southern Sudan,Ethiopia, Eastern Africa (including Natal), Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Angola and Southwest Africa. In this species males may attain a greater size than females, a characteristic shared with certain other members of the genus Geochelone, including Galapagos tortoises. The largest recorded example of Leopard tortoise remains "Domkrag" who lived for many years in the Addo National ElephantPark; this enormous tortoise measured 656mm and weighed 43kg. Unfortunately, he died in 1976 after becoming trapped in an antbear hole. By comparison, the largest recorded female measured 498mm and weighed 20kg.

Above: The famous 'Domkrag' in action, sometime in the late 1950's

A large female maintained by the Tortoise Trust presently measures 390mm and weighs 14kg. Rapid growth is still continuing. Most adults are, however, considerably smaller with the majority measuring in the region of 325mm and weighing approximately 10kg.

Taxonomic status

Most authorities recognize two subspecies; Geochelone pardalis pardalis from South-western Africa and G. p. babcocki from Eastern and Southern Africa. Of the two races, G. p. babcocki has by far the most extensive distribution and is almost without exception the variety most likely to be encountered in captivity in the US and Europe. It should be noted that some authorities with extensive field experience of Geochelone pardalis (of both alleged races) dissent from the popular view that there are two distinct subspecies. Other authorities maintain that intergrades occur. Even within G. p. babcocki considerable variation in terms of shell pattern is evident; some specimens feature large, pale areas amid the dark blotches, in others the pattern is much closer. Occasionally, melanistic animals are observed. The photograph below is of a juvenile Leopard tortoise taken in Tanzanier.

 

Natural habitat and diet

This tortoise favours semi-arid, thorny to grassland habitats. It is, however, also found in some regions featuring a higher level of precipitation. It hot weather it is known to aestivate, and in cold periods adopts a torpid mode; in both cases it shelters in jackal, fox and antbear burrows. Not surprisingly, given its propensity for grassland habitats it grazes, extensively upon mixed grasses. It also favours the fruit and pads of the prickly pear (Opuntia sp.), succulents and thistles. It captivity it is a common error to feed too much 'wet' food such as lettuce, tomatoes and fruit; in reality this tortoise requires a coarse, high fibre diet. Feeding excessive fruit or 'soft' foods frequently leads to repeated flagellate and other gut problems such as colic, most probably as a result of increased gut motility. Leopard tortoises will graze happily on lawn grass if presented with the opportunity and this seems to prevent most such problems at source. Certainly, our own Leopard tortoises have never been in better health since provided with continual access to a large, coarsely planted grazing area. Winter feeding can be problematic given the reduction in available natural graze, and 'supermarket' greens are not only typically low in fibre and trace elements but are also expensive in the quantities demanded by such large tortoises. Our own solution is to grow winter feeding crops in a polytunnel as used for commercial horticulture. Dried meadow hays are excellent for routine inclusion in the diet of this species.

 

The calcium demand of Leopard tortoises is also extremely high, especially in gravid females and during rapid growth phases. In the wild this tortoise is known to gnaw upon bleached bones and to consume hyena faeces in a search for sufficient calcium; in captivity, a generous application of 'Nutrobal' or 'Rep-Cal' to the diet is a more practical substitute.

Provided a combined Calcium-D3 supplement is used, we have not found it absolutely essential to utilize a ultra-violet light source; however, on the whole, we do recommend using a combined UV-B and heat lamp with this species. The new self-ballasted mercury vapour lamps are ideal.   Adequate access to outdoors, should, in any event be provided during warm and sunny weather. On the correct diet growth should be smooth and even, with an absence of 'lumps' or raised scutes. Meat products should definitely not be given to Leopard tortoises (or any other naturally herbivorous tortoise, for that matter); it invariably leads to excessive growth, poor bone formation, dangerously high blood-urea levels, bladder 'stones' and liver problems. We have grown Leopard tortoises on from hatchlings to adults with total success using high fibre, high calcium and low protein diets and see no justification for any other (less natural) regime. Some vegetable-origin items are contraindicated as they are also too high in protein; we have seen a number of tortoises exhibit severe problems following regular feeding on sprouting seeds and beans, for example. Not only are peas and beans high in protein (which in turn promotes excess growth), but they are also disastrously poor in terms of their calcium to phosphorus ratio.Such items should not be included in tortoise diets.

Captive environment

Leopard tortoises like (and need) space - lots of it. If they are kept in cramped conditions they suffer from loss of muscle tone and lack of exercise. They are extremely strong animals, so flimsy accommodation is definitely out of the question. All fixtures and fittings must be firmly bolted down. Our own Leopard tortoise house consists of a 2m X 2m indoor grazing area, a secondary 2m X 2m sleeping quarters and a 7m X 4m outdoor grazing area. This we consider adequate for 3 adults. Heating is provided by an oil-fired  boiler providing hot water piped to under-floor heating pads in the overnight and indoor grazing areas; for smaller installations electrical heating is a practical (although more expensive) option. Our own housing is designed with solar-gain and energy conservation very much in mind; hence, even in our European winter the tortoises are able to bask naturally on most days. Failing this, some 300W UV-Heat lamps are available. Needless to say, the 'running costs' of Leopard tortoises tend to be on the high side compared to smaller tortoises. It is also worth pointing out that the dietary and environmental requirements of Leopard tortoises are virtually identical to those of Geochelone sulcata, the African Spurred tortoise.

Captive reproduction

Sexual maturity is attained under natural conditions at between 12-15 years, but size is as important as age; in captivity, growth is often faster than in the wild and maturity can be reached at between 6-8 years. Both males and females have reproduced in captivity when approximately 200mm in length, although 250mm is more usual. Males are distinguished by longer tails, more elongate bodies, and typically (but not always) a plastral depression. Mating consists of gentle 'ramming' of the female by the male, and intromission is accompanied by a cough-like grunting noise from the male. Clutches can be large; 5 to 15 eggs are fairly representative. Some large females can, however, lay considerably more - 30 are not unheard of. The eggs are somewhat variable in size and shape (possibly representing internal differences between various females and geographical variation). Most measure approximately 45mm in diameter and weigh about 55g. The reproductive potential of Leopard tortoises is high given that some females lay 3 or more clutches per season.

Incubation is best accomplished in a dry-air incubator at approximately 30-31C. Incubation times are long compared to many other tortoises. Up to 392 days has been recorded. This is exceptional, however, and most hatch at between 130 and 150 days. Juveniles have identical requirements to adults, and particular attention should be paid to dietary management. An indoor pen of 500mm X 500mm is ideal for 'head starting', although we normally place neonates in a base-heated plant propagator tray for the first few months of life. A small basking lamp and full spectrum tube, or overhead UV-B heat lamp will encourage normal behaviour patterns and thermoregulation.

Common diseases

Leopard tortoises are relatively hardy animals if cared for correctly, however, a certain few diseases are seen with monotonous regularity. It is worth any potential keeper familiarising themselves with these. This list is not comprehensive, nor does it purport to offer detailed guidelines for treatment. It merely reports on an empirical basis the accumulated experience of many years practical observation of this species.
 

Stomatitis ('mouth rot')

Both bacterial and viral forms have been recorded in G. pardalis, and due to the strength of the animals may prove extremely difficult to treat. Early symptoms include excess saliva and a rasping cough which often indicates that the infection has begun to invade the throat. At the first signs of such symptoms obtain immediate veterinary assistance. Some cases do respond to treatment, but the majority of our own experiences of stomatitis in this species have not been happy ones. Stomatitis is much more common in animals which have contacted other species than in isolated one-species collections.

WARNING: Leopard tortoises (along with Indian Star tortoises) are highly susceptible to herpes virus infection. There is no effective treatment for this condition, symptoms of which may include antibiotic resistant stomatitis, multiple secondary infections, and hepatitis. The herpes organisms can be carried by animals that display no outward smptoms, but that remain highly contagious, and capable of transmitting the disease to any other animals that they contact. There is no safe quarantine period. We are aware of one case where an animal remained infected and contagious for 10 years before finally displaying symptoms itself.

Nematodes

Leopard tortoises should be 'wormed' routinely. The use of an ovicidal worming treatment is recommended. The most difficult part of this process is often handling; the wormer is delivered by stomach tube and, due to the considerable strength of these tortoises, this can turn into something of a battle. We have found that Leopard tortoises can be accustomed to this type of handling however, and would recommend that in order to facilitate treatment later, young specimens are handled in this way on a regular basis. An alternative mode of delivery is to use Panacur paste, which can simply be applied to the food. This has proved both safe and effective.

Hexamitiasis

This highly contagious organism is commonly encountered in G. pardalis and unless identified and treated quickly is likely to lead to terminal renal failure. Symptoms include lethargy, weight loss, strongly smelling (and often thickened) urine and refusal to feed. Excessive drinking may also be observed. Again, at the first sign of such symptoms seek veterinary assistance. It may help if you collect a urine sample and take it with you when you visit your vet. The easiest way to collect a urine sample from a tortoise is to place it in a large plastic storage box for a while, alternatively line a cardboard box with polythene.  Hexamitiasis is caused by Hexamita parva, and is most frequently seen in newly imported and stressed animals, or those which have been maintained at incorrect temperatures. Because of the contagious and lethal nature of this condition it is extremely risky to introduce new animals to an established collection until it can be demonstrated that they are free of the disease. A minimum quarantine period of 6 months is suggested in most cases. We prefer 12 months where the newly acquired stock has an uncertain history. Fortunately, Hexamitiasis is treatable in the early stages and Flagyl (Metronidazole) has proved consistently successful. Your vet will suggest a suitable dosing schedule, but we have found a single dose at 260 mg kg entirely effective.

Pneumonia

Symptoms include breathing with the mouth open and (frequently) neck raised. Pneumonia is common in animals which have been maintained at sub-optimum temperatures or have otherwise been subjected to severe stress. Prompt veterinary treatment is essential. Many cases show a good response to subcutaneous injections of Oxytetracycline (50-75mg/kg) or Baytril (2.5-10mg/kg). Keeping the animal warm and dry during treatment, including overnight, is an essential prerequisite to success.

Conclusion

Leopard tortoises are increasingly being bred in captivity. This is a positive development as it should lead to a gradual reduction in demand for wild-caught animals. G. pardalis is well suited to captive propagation, and is also (reasonably) tolerant of climatic variations. A well-cared for Leopard tortoise should live for many years and indeed, may outlive its owner. It has a deserved reputation as one of the most rewarding tortoises to keep and breed in captivity.