11th March 2017

Shellyn Butterworth and Louis Steynberg were travelling back towards Nieu-Bethesda from Cradock, when they spotted four tiny tortoises crossing the busy road just before the t-junction that joins the N9.  The four little helmeted reptiles were tenaciously crossing the tar together, obviously having recently hatched, as they were still covered in the Karoo dirt that had protected their eggs for 8-15 months.  Louis and Shellyn waited until these little wonders had crossed the road safely – before taking a quick portrait of them and releasing them into the safer veld on the other side of the dangerous road.  

It appears that these are leopard tortoises, also known as mountain tortoises, of the genus Stigmochelys pardalis, derived from the greek words stigma, meaning marked, and chelys meaning tortoise.  Although  leopard tortoises are relatively common in the Karoo, they have many predators (especially at this vulnerable stage), and fences, roads and unscrupulous humans also threaten their existence.  

After breeding from September to April, the female leopard tortoise lays batches of up to 25 eggs in holes that she digs and then covers in the Karoo soil.  The eggs incubate for 8-15 months, during which time the soil may be compacted.  The baby tortoises hatch underground, and sometimes have to wait until rain has fallen for the ground to soften enough for them to be able to dig their way out.  It is interesting to note, that during incubation, if the temperatures are high (31-35 degress), females develop while males only develop in the eggs if the temperatures are lower. 

So next time you see a fully grown tortoise peacefully making his way through the veld, remember that he has waited patiently underground for the rain to fall so that he can dig his way upwards into the world.  He may have crossed tar roads, been pecked at by blue cranes, chewed on by  mongooses or tried to be cracked open by baboons.  He may have come across fences and barriers that hindered his ancient pathways.  He would have crossed roads and pulled his head and legs into his shell to protect himself from roaring trucks and fast cars.    A fully grown tortoise is a remarkable survivor!  It will be a sad day, when the last tortoise is reduced to a sun-bleached carapace in the Karoo.  Perhaps, by ensuring that these 4 tiny tortoises survived that busy tar road, Shellyn and Louis ensured that four more will survive at least another day.

Written By Bronwen Langmead from Nieu-Bethesda.