Young Geochelone pardalis

Young, captive-bred leopard tortoise
Photograph by Ulf Eweman

In December 1987 I joined the Southwestern Herpetologists Society and a friend showed me a couple of African leopard tortoises (Geochelone pardalis). I asked him to pick up a pair for me. When I opened the box he had brought to the January meeting for me I thought I had never seen anything as beautiful as the two tortoises inside. The male was about 5 pounds and the female about 15 (I wish I had weighed and measured them when I first got them!).

It was warm for a January, in the 80°s during the day and in the low 60°s at night. I put the leopard tortoises outside in the front yard during the day and moved them in at night to a box filled with rabbit pellets. Over the next few days I watched them chow down on the grass and weeds in the yard, and the male pace for hours along the fence. I realized I needed to get a lot more information about this pair of fascinating creatures that I now had.

I joined the Valley Chapter of CTTC and learned more about them--that they ate mainly vegetables and fruit. I tried offering them watermelon, cantaloupe, strawberries, and apples along with dark green leafy vegetables. They would take a few bites, then the female would go to a corner of the yard, pull in and not move, while the male would continue his fence pacing.

What I hadn't noticed was that as the warm spell ended, the temperature was now only rising to 70°F during the warmest part of the day and it was cooling faster each afternoon. Because of the lower temperatures the tortoises were digesting their food more slowly and so did not eat as much. I brought them inside and kept them in their box. At a temperature of about 80°F or so they ate a little more but nowhere near as much as I would like to have seen. Later I would discover, through trial and error, that mine seem to eat best when warm and outside!

I sure have learned a lot since that first winter, and have added another male and two females to my collection. These leopard tortoises come from tropical Africa and do not hibernate. They are active throughout the year if kept warm and will eat anytime if the temperature is hot enough.

In hot weather they become active early in the morning. They feed, and then find a bush to hide under until late afternoon when they come out once again for a brief feeding session before returning to their preferred nighttime spot. Each of my tortoises has a daytime resting place which is different from where it retires to at night. Knowing where they like to retire to makes it easier for me to find them, because in tall weeds or shrubs leopard tortoises are unbelievably hard to spot as the sun goes down or after dark.

I bring the tortoises inside anytime the temperature drops below 60°F and leave them inside on cool, cloudy or rainy days. I have not had any problems with serious illness or disease.

The original 5-pound male grew a whopping 3 pounds in three years, and the 15-pound female now weighs 30 pounds. Because he was and is so much smaller than the female, I had dashed all hopes of getting eggs from the pair even though the female dug a hole in December 1990 but laid no eggs that I could find.