Tortoises are land dwellers and are often confused with their water relative the turtle. Tortoises are mysterious creatures that lay eggs, have scales and have an oval-shaped hard-shell. Generally their lifespans are comparable with those of human beings, and some individuals are known to have lived longer than 150 years.
Tortoises are shielded from predators by a shell. The top part of their shell is the carapace, the underside is the plastron and the two are connected by the bridge. The internal skeleton of these backboned animals is almost totally connected with its shell, which cannot be removed without causing serious injury. The easiest way to determine the gender of a tortoise is to look at the tail. The females, as a general rule, have smaller tails, dropped down, whereas the males have much longer tails which are usually pulled up and to the side of the rear shell. Even though tortoises lack vocal cords, they can make sounds by swallowing or by forcing air out of their lungs and though tortoises don’t have ears, they can perceive low-pitched sounds. With no teeth tortoises tears and chews its food with its hard, sharp-edged horny beak.
Tortoises living in the interior of the Western Cape become inactive during winter and Hybernate. Others along the coast, however, stay active and may be seen on sunny, winter days. A female tortoise lays her eggs (1 to 18 eggs, depending on the species) in a hole dug with her strong hind feet. She doesn’t take care of her offspring.
As different tortoise species vary greatly in their nutritional requirements, it is essential to thoroughly research the dietary needs of an individual tortoise. Their diet should not only consist of lettuce, but also include a variety of flowering plants, grass, fruit and vegetables. Plant some of your tortoise’s favourite food plants in its enclosures. They are very sensitive animals and are highly susceptible to developing growth abnormalities as a result of incorrect nutrition. Fresh water should always be readily available; it is a myth that they receive the bulk of their hydration in their foods.
Tortoises require far more space than most reptiles, as their behaviour and exercise requirements are very different. They need a dry and well drained area with both shade and full time sun. It is essential that the habitat you create is safe from attacks from predators. Many tortoises are excellent climbers and others can dig deep burrows very quickly, so when setting up their home, make sure they will not be able to dig their way out or fall off of any high rocks.
All tortoises require light and heat to function normally and to maintain good health, but if a tortoise ends upside down it usually cannot turn itself upright again and can die when it is exposed to too much sun. Be gentle with your shelled friend because tortoise can feel your touch as its shell is made from the protein keratin, the same material as a human nail. If their living area does not have adequate drainage, your tortoise will become susceptible to shell and respiratory infections but if they do not have adequate fresh drinking water then they run the risk of kidney disease and bladder stones. Even the best kept tortoises may suffer from health problems from time to time. If you ever suspect that your pet tortoise may be ill or have any ailments, contact your Kenridge Tygerberg Animal Hospital on 021 914 0886.
All South African tortoise species are protected by law. You may not collect, keep one as a pet, donate, sell, import or export any tortoise without special permission. For a free special permit, contact your nearest nature conservation office.
Onrus: (028) 316-3338
Bellville: (021) 945-4701
Stellenbosch (021) 866-1560