The Leopard Tortoise (Geochelone pardalis) | Breed Facts and Essential Care Guide

The Leopard Tortoise (Geochelone pardalis) | Breed Facts and Essential Care Guide

These striking reptiles make popular pets across the globe so it is important we gather as much information we can about them to be able to provide them with the best life. It is said that leopard tortoises (Geochelone pardalis) are a better option for more advanced tortoise keepers so you may want to look at other species if you are just a beginner. Either way, it is important to have all of the information to be able to make the right decision for you and your family.  

Leopart Tortoise Fact File

With their striking shell markings Leopard tortoises (Geochelone pardalis) are some of the most distinguishable tortoises out there but there is still so much we need to learn about them. Here is everything you need to know about these important tortoises!

Common Names

The leopard tortoise isn’t known by any other names as it relates to their striking shell design. Their scientific name, Geochelone pardalis, may be used but it’s much more likely that they will be called by their common name.  

Lifespan

The leopard tortoise has been known to live to 100 years old both in the wild and in captivity, with most living well over 50 years of age. 

Description

The leopard tortoises are the second largest species of tortoise in Africa, with the largest being the African spurred tortoise. Their shells are highly domed in shape and can grow to be 10-18 inches in length. Leopard tortoises can weigh up to 45kg, however it is more common for them to weigh around 25kg. Females often grow larger than males however it can be difficult to use this to sex them unless you know their exact ages. 

Of course, the easiest way to identify a leopard tortoise from other tortoise species is by their striking shell pattern which resembles that of the wild cat with the same name. Unlike other tortoises, whose shell patterns are quite uniform in design, the shell of the leopard tortoise often shows no symmetry or repetition which means you can easily identify one individual from another based on each tortoise’s shell alone. Depending on their location, different subspecies of wild leopard tortoises may have slightly different colourations and shell patterns which can make them easy to distinguish from each other. 

Aside from the design being beautiful, it also provides excellent camouflage in their natural habitat by breaking up their outline and helping them to blend in with the grasses and shrubbery. 

Their heads and legs are a dark golden yellow in colour and they have thick scales on their forelimbs. The females have long, strong digging claws on their hind legs that they will use to dig their nests. 

Habitat

The leopard tortoises can be found in eastern and southern Africa in countries such as South Africa, Ethiopia and Somalia. The western (Geochelone pardalis pardalis) and the easten (Geochelone pardalis babcocki) rarely overlap in range, with the only countries they are both found in being South Africa. 

Their natural habitat consists of the savannah and semi-arid grasslands where food is scarce and they have to shelter under shrubbery to hide from the intense heat.  

Behaviours

As with most tortoises, the leopard variety spends most of their days basking, sleeping, and eating. However, due to the intense heat of their natural habitat in eastern and southern Africa, they also spend a lot of their time staying sheltered under the shrubs and bushes so as not to overheat from too much sun exposure. They are most active at dawn and dusk where you will find them searching for food and mates. 

With their striking shell markings Leopard tortoises (Geochelone pardalis) are some of the most distinguishable tortoises out there but there is still so much we need to learn about them. Click To Tweet

They do not climb or burrow much, like other species of tortoises but they can be quick to travel over rocky terrain thanks to their sturdy legs and long claws. 

Leopard tortoises are not known to be particularly social and males will fight during mating season when competing for a mate. 

Reproduction

Leopard tortoises are monogamous and therefore will only mate with one tortoise during the mating season. The mating season for leopard tortoises runs from May through to October where males and females become aggressive with each other when looking for a mate. This includes biting and ramming other tortoises that they may need to compete with. 

After mating, the gravid female will search for a nest site where she will deposit her eggs and they will incubate for 9-12 months. Incubation length depends on the temperature and the external conditions. 

Young tortoises are independent upon leaving the nest and female tortoises will not return to provide any care to them. 

Conservation Status

Although the IUCN has them listed as Least Concern, there is not an accurate estimate of population sizes in their natural habitat. With that in mind, we should still be doing everything that we can to protect these animals, especially some that are constantly exploited for the western pet trades.

Threats

Leopard tortoises are seen as pests in a wide range of their habitat as they eat the crops being grown, therefore they are often killed in retaliation. What’s more, in some areas, leopard tortoises are a staple food and therefore are eaten by the locals, meaning their populations are much lower in areas with a higher density of humans. 

Finally, as with most species of tortoise, leopard tortoises are very popular pets and are still regularly taken from the wild to become a part of the illegal pet trade. 

Keeping a Leopard Tortoise as a Pet

Many tortoise keepers comment on how difficult it can be to keep a leopard tortoise – they are very sensitive and require specific conditions to be able to thrive. Here’s everything you need to know about keeping a leopard tortoise as a pet to get you started. If you don’t think a leopard tortoise is for you, or maybe you cannot provide everything they need, then don’t be disheartened – there are many other species of tortoises that you could consider.  

Enclosure Size

Due to them being larger tortoises when fully grown, they should be given ample space to be able to explore which is why the recommended size for adult leopard tortoises is around 3m x 3m. Young tortoises could be housed in a tortoise table for a few years but they will soon need to move into something bigger as they begin to grow.

Many people will dedicate a whole room of their house to their tortoises, or perhaps you have a well-heated garage or shed you would like to fit out for your leopard tortoises. A small enclosure can lead to behavioural problems but can also be a stressor for your tortoise which can be the cause of several health issues, too. 

If you cannot dedicate a sufficient amount of space for your growing tortoises, then we suggest looking at a smaller species of tortoise that can remain in a tortoise table for the entirety of its life. 

leopard tortoise

Habitat Setup

As we mentioned previously, it’s important that their enclosure is sufficient in size for them, however, while this would sometimes mean giving your tortoises space in your garden in an outdoor enclosure, Leopard tortoises are not tolerant to low temperatures and therefore will not do well in the UK climate, especially when temperatures drop over winter. 

We suggest dedicating a large room or adding additional heating to a well-insulated shed or garage for adult leopard tortoises. Hatchlings and juvenile tortoises do great in a tortoise table but we would avoid using a vivarium for this species as they don’t tolerate high humidity well.

Substrate

Leopard tortoises require a dry substrate similar to that they would encounter in the wild. Anything too moist can cause respiratory problems or shell rot if it is not managed correctly. Use something like wood chips or a soil-sand mixture and then provide different areas with varying humidity so they can move where they feel most comfortable.

They will likely burrow in areas with higher humidity and low temperature so it’s important you provide them with the conditions needed to fulfil these natural behaviours, which may mean giving them a few extra inches of substrate. 

Lighting

As with all tortoises, leopard tortoises need UVB light to be able synthesise Vitamin D3 so that they can absorb calcium to grow healthy bones and a healthy shell. In the wild, they would get a high dose of UVB from natural sunlight however, in captivity, this is not sufficient, especially as filtered sunlight does not have the same effect. 

You can provide UVB lighting by installing the correct bulbs and keeping them on throughout the day. You can also use a timer so that they turn on and off every 12 hours so as to mimic the hours of natural sunlight that they would experience in the wild. 

Make sure they have a good basking spot where they can soak up the UV light to be able to grow healthy and strong. Without this, and without a sufficient amount of vitamin D3 and calcium in their system, they could develop metabolic bone disease which can be fatal if not diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.

Heat

Leopard tortoises are highly intolerant of lower temperatures and should not be kept in conditions that are consistently lower than 20 degrees Celsius. For this reason, outdoor enclosures are not suitable as the UK temperatures fluctuate throughout the year and would not be suitable for the needs of the leopard tortoise. 

Use thermostats and high-quality thermometers to monitor the temperature to provide a suitable temperature gradient. The warm end should be underneath the basking light where the temperatures should be reaching 35 degrees Celsius, and then the cool end on the other side of their enclosure with a temperature of around 25 degrees Celsius. 

Humidity

Humidity should be relatively low in your leopard tortoise enclosure as their natural environment is relatively dry. During the day, a relative humidity of 40-60% is perfect for them, however they prefer a higher humidity at night therefore you should gently mist their substrate when it’s time to turn their lights off. 

Furnishings

You should always places plants, logs, rocks, and other furnishings in your tortoise enclosure to encourage them to explore and discover the entirety of the space available to them. A bored tortoise is a stressed tortoise and this can lead to many health problems. Move the furnishings around frequently to change their enclosure and stimulate exploratory behaviours. Although they are not as active and responsive as cats or dogs, they still require mental stimulation to be a healthy tortoise. 

Water

Provide a shallow water dish for them to sit in and drink from. Leopard tortoises love water to be able to cool down after a long time under the basking lamp. This needs to be cleaned daily and they must be provided with fresh water to prevent a build up of bacteria, especially as tortoises will often defecate in their water bowls. What’s more, as they climb into their water bowl, they will likely drag in the substrate from their enclosure which is another reason they should be given fresh water on a daily basis.

Care Routine

Due to the high natural temperatures of their habitat in the wild, leopard tortoises do not need to hibernate therefore you must keep their conditions stable all year round. This is vital to their survival, as any lower temperatures will only cause health issues which could be fatal. 

Diet

Their daily diet should consist of a range of fresh food that changes regularly to ensure they get all of the vitamins and minerals that they need. As grazers, leopard tortoises will travel extensively in the wild and eat various grasses and vegetation. Captive leopard tortoises should be given as much variety as possible to mimic this. Some foods they can eat regularly include:

  • Mustard greens
  • Bell peppers
  • Hibiscus leaves
  • Timothy hay
  • Dandelion greens
  • Collard greens
  • Turnip greens
  • Carrot
  • Clover
  • Kale

Other foods such as fruits and vegetables can be given, however, they are often high in sugar so they should be fed in moderation as a rare treat. 

If you choose sand as the substrate for your leopard tortoise, we would recommend placing your tortoise’s food on a separate water dish as if they accidentally ingest any of the substrate, it can cause impaction which can be incredibly dangerous. 

Since they do not get any natural sunlight, some vets may suggest giving your leopard tortoise additional supplements to ensure they get everything they need, however this may be dependent on your tortoise’s age, size, and how they seem to be developing so chat with a specialist before you commit to anything. 

Health

As with other reptiles in general, the leopard tortoise is very sensitive to their environmental conditions and therefore has very specific requirements to be able to thrive. Damp conditions and the incorrect humidity can lead to respiratory infections or shell rot, while insufficient UVB lighting can cause metabolic bone disease. 

Many health problems can arise if you do not know how to care for your leopard tortoise properly, and as a species that is more sensitive than others, it is even more important that you do your research to ensure you are doing everything that you can to ensure they remain a healthy tortoise. 

Temperament

Most pet tortoises will get used to their humans interacting with them and the leopard tortoise is the same. They are very unlikely to bite, however you should always exercise caution when spending time with your tortoises as their beaks are sharp and it’s not to say that they wouldn’t bite if they felt threatened. 

We never recommend picking up your tortoises as they are not used to being so far off the ground and the experience can be stressful for them.

Buying a Leopard Tortoise

You do not need a certificate to be able to buy a leopard tortoise however we still recommend buying for a registered breeder. It’s important that you do not purchase wild caught specimens as the sellers will be directly profiting from the illegal pet trade and adding to the decline of the species in the wild. 

Ask the seller questions about where the tortoises were bred and their experience of breeding tortoises. You should also look at the conditions they are being kept in as well, as those in less than optimal conditions could be experiencing health issues.

Follow your instinct and only buy tortoises from someone you trust. 

Alternatively, look for a tortoise that you can adopt. With leopard tortoises living for so many years, sometimes families’ circumstances will change and they will need to rehome their tortoises, therefore there are many fully grown, adult tortoises that need new homes, too.

Conclusion

Leopard tortoises require very specific care to be able to do well in captivity so you should only commit if you know you can give them everything that they need for many years to come. Living up to 100 years of age, the leopard tortoise will become a long-term family member that will require care and attention all year round.

If you can provide the right conditions, then you will get to enjoy a beautiful species 

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Rosie Castle

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