The Leopard Tortoise is also called a Mountain Tortoise in direct translation of its Afrikaans name, Bergskilpad. According to the SANBI, the genus name Stigmochelys is a combination of the Greek words stigma meaning ‘marked’ and chelone meaning ‘tortoise’. The specific epithet pardalis is derived from the Greek word pardos meaning ‘spotted’ after the spotted shell.
These are the largest tortoises in South Africa and are always a joy to see in the wild. The Addo Elephant National Park is an excellent place to come across them – a visit there hardly seems complete without seeing at least one Leopard Tortoise. We have been fortunate to see several on our recent visits.
A light sprinkling of rain, gives this Leopard Tortoise a newly washed look as it crossed the tar road. Because of the absence of a nucal shield, these are the only tortoises able to raise their heads – and the only ones that can swim!
Here a Leopard Tortoise was making the most of the new green shoots of grass to emerge after the recent rain in the Addo Elephant National Park.
While they are mostly herbivorous, Leopard Tortoises have also been known to gnaw bones, and to eat carnivore faeces to obtain calcium for shell growth and the development of eggshells. This one appears to have damaged its horny beak, giving it a gap-toothed look – although they are actually toothless.
Even though they derive some liquid from their diet, Leopard Tortoises drink water readily when it is available. This one was making for the waterhole at Carol’s Rest at considerable speed!
The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns is possibly among the most popular means of introducing young people to classical music and to the different instruments that make up an orchestra. The other is that wonderful symphonic fairy-tale for children, Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. At the end of May this year, the Grahamstown Music Society devoted the first half of their concert to a transcription by Werner Thomas-Mifune for cello and piano of The Carnival of the Animals. Parents were invited to bring their children and “nobody will take offence if they leave at interval!”
I cannot show you all of the animals, but will introduce you to a few – with a South African twist.
The Royal March of the Lion
Instead of hens and roosters you can see a Red-necked Spurfowl
Donkeys will stand in for the Wild Asses
I will have to skip the kangaroos and the aquarium, but a Zebra will step in for the Characters with Long Ears
Skip the cuckoo for now and come to an aviary
Of pianists I have no pictures, so perhaps some Bagpipers will do
The fossils will be represented by a skeleton
Alas, I have no swan so will show you a Yellow-billed Stork instead!
The urban lifestyle is so far removed from the natural order of things: eat and be eaten. While some may have fruit and vegetables growing in their gardens or on their balconies, the majority of urbanites rely on supermarkets, butchers, bakeries and the like for their daily food. Meat comes wrapped in styrofoam and plastic, bread is pre-sliced in plastic bags, vegetables are ready picked and washed on the shelves – perhaps even pre-chopped / sliced / mixed all ready for roasting or stir-frying …
That is not the case in nature, where the eat and be eaten order applies.
This is what remains of a Mountain Tortoise:
A Zebra munches the dry winter grass:
What is left of a Kudu:
The grisly end of a Cape Buffalo that had been a meal for many:
This is a Warthog grazing – note the way it rests on its front knees:
They also rest on their knees when drinking:
An elephant tucks into a nutritious meal:
Not to be outdone by the Cape buffalo, leopard tortoises were also out in force during our recent visit to the Addo Elephant National Park. These tortoises (Stigmochelys pardalis) are often called mountain tortoises from directly translating the Afrikaans name for them, bergskilpad. They grow to be the largest tortoises in South Africa, which makes the mature ones easy to spot in the veld – if they are around.
The first one we saw was in the vicinity of the Lismore Waterhole, seemingly unperturbed by the presence of so many elephants. Although we watched it closely for some time, marvelling at its size, the wise look in its eyes and the good condition of its carapace, it was only once I was studying its image on my computer that I noticed the tick on it!
Apparently it is not uncommon to find tortoises in the wild that are infested with ticks in the soft skin of their necks and upper limbs. Notice its well-developed back legs and the pigeon-toed front legs. The row of small nails helps the tortoise to manoeuvre over rocks and to walk at speed. You would be surprised to see how quickly these tortoises can move through the veld!
Another lone tortoise appeared near the road on our way to the Hapoor Waterhole.
This is not unusual for they tend to be loners except for during the mating season. That is when the males follow females for some distance and then butt them into submission. We couldn’t help wondering if this is what was happening near Ghwarrie. We watched these two pushing each other for about ten minutes – and they had been at it before we arrived. It could equally have been an example of competitor ramming, especially as these ones were head-to-head.
By the end of our trip we had lost count of the number of leopard tortoises we had seen – some striding ahead purposefully, others munching grass contentedly, and yet others ambling across the road with the confidence of knowing that they have right of way.
We spotted one angulate tortoise and it was not waiting around for any touristy shots. Instead, it was walking as fast as its legs could carry it across the road to where it could hide in the dry grass.
The most severe drought in over thirty years has bitten hard in the Kruger National Park, where the lack of grass is striking – even though this is the end of winter. I have already illustrated this with the contrasting images of Transport Dam from April last year to September this year. Another stark contrast is evident when crossing the N’wanestsi River. In April last year we were confronted by this magnificent scene:
Now it looks like this:
That many animals have succumbed to the drought or have been culled has been widely reported in the press. Along some of the roads one can occasionally be overwhelmed by the stench of rotting flesh and elsewhere bones are clearly visible.
As the drought continues, sufficient nutritious food must be increasingly difficult to find. At some places one is left wondering what the animals are finding to ward off hunger.
Browsers are, perhaps, more fortunate.
We happened upon a leopard gnawing at a long-dead carcass of a blue wildebeest.
Another leopard had clearly had an altercation with a porcupine.
Note the porcupine quill below the eye
At the N’wanetsi viewpoint we looked down on crocodiles eating a dead hippo.
Bear in mind that dead animals provide food for others.
Pundits predict that rains are not expected until November. As bleak as the immediate future might seem to be, the hardy species survive. Even the most battered of trees know it is spring and are sprouting tender leaves.
Even though these will be nibbled at by anything from a kudu to a Grey Lourie.
Spring is in the air – not officially for that only happens on 1st September. Nature does not adhere to those human desires to carve time into clear blocks of expectation. Headline news is that Whiterumped Swifts made their first appearance today – earlier than usual – and that means that the Lesserstriped Swallows cannot be far behind. Klaas’ Cuckoo has also made an early entrance this spring. African Green Pigeons now call regularly from within the thick foliage of the Natal Fig and with the warmer weather comes the melodious sounds of Fierynecked Nightjars. I am very pleased to have seen more of the Redbacked Shrike this month as well as the Spectacled Weaver.
Weavers are becoming more serious about their nest-building. The image below is the start of a Cape Weaver nest in a Pompon tree.
The Pintailed Whydahs – most of the males have almost divested themselves of their buff winter dress – are becoming more aggressive. I wonder which of the six males I saw bossing each other around this morning will claim our garden as its territory this summer.
Mrs. Greater Doublecollared Sunbird has been collecting feathers for nest lining. They seem to be enjoying the nectar in the brilliant orange flowers of the Cape Honeysuckle, while the Black Sunbirds are seen more frequently in the scarlet blooms of the Erythrina caffra.
Laughing Doves abound. This pair is perched in a Syringa tree, which is heavy with fruit.
With so many domestic animals around the suburbs these days, Cattle Egrets are a common sight – they look especially beautiful in flight. A pair of Egyptian Geese have been honking overhead too lately and a pair of Knysna Louries regularly make their way through the trees to drink and bathe in one of our birdbaths. This Forktailed Drongo is perched in the Acacia caffra, which is just beginning to show its spring foliage.
In non-birding news, Bryan – the angulate tortoise – emerged from his winter hideout under a tangle of aloes this morning and has been walking around in search of food.
Sammy – the Leopard tortoise – has only got as far as exposing himself to the sun, but has not budged all day. He spent the winter in a mass of Van Staden daisies nest to our swimming pool. Both are looking healthy after their period of torpidity.
My August list is:
African Green Pigeon
Black Crow (Cape)
Black Sunbird (Amethyst)
Cape Turtle Dove
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Greyheaded Bush Shrike
Redbilled Woodhoopoe (Green Woodhoopoe)
Rock Pigeon (Speckled)
Southern Masked Weaver
Sammy, a relatively young Leopard Tortoise, was brought to us after being found on a local junior school campus. He has already had quite a tough life as one can tell from the damage to the skirt of his carapace – doubtless stemming from the curiosity of dogs.
He was brought to our garden on a very chilly afternoon, carefully conveyed in a beer box.
The shell pattern is very attractive – both on top and underneath.
Once Sammy had undergone the ignominy of being photographed from all angles, he found refuge under the Spekboom growing near the swimming pool.
It was a day or so later that we spotted him exploring the tangle of Plumbago before he disappeared for a while. Once the bout of cold weather gave way to warm sunshine, however, Sammy was on the move again and was last seen tucking himself away under the Van Stadens Daisies on the edge of the lawn. This is good news for Leopard Tortoises mostly eat grass – of which we have a variety in the garden. Sammy has the freedom to go wherever he pleases. I wonder when, and if, he will meet Bryan (the Angulate Tortoise) during his wanderings.