Stigmochelys pardalis, more commonly known as the
leopard tortoise, bergskilpad or mfutsu, is an attractively
marked, long-lived member of South Africa’s ‘Small
Five’ (along with the rhino beetle, the red-billed buffalo
weaver, elephant shrew and the antlion). The largest
species of tortoise in southern Africa, the leopard
tortoise is the only species in the genus Stigmochelys.
The leopard tortoise is considered not threatened. They
are notably adaptable and wild leopard tortoises can
reach an age of up to 100 years, while living only
between 30 to 75 years in captivity.
Adults are recognised by the dark colouration of their
decorative, dome-like shells and their large size.
Tortoises originated in Asia, thereafter, spreading to
Europe and North America and are now widespread
throughout the savannah regions of Africa,
stretching from southern Sudan, Ethiopia and
Somalia in East Africa, to the Eastern Cape, Karoo,
southern Angola, and Namibia.
Leopard tortoises enjoy succulents, grass shoots and
fallen fruits in their diet, using their sense of smell to
find food. Their diet has a high liquid content,
however, they still need to drink water. Leopard
tortoises reserve their water in a ‘bursa sac,’ which is
used for hydration and to moisten dry ground,
making it easier for females to dig a nest and lay
Tortoises may eject their stored water as a deterrent
or defence mechanism when picked up. However,
this leaves them vulnerable to dehydration if they
are unable to reach a water source to replenish in
time, especially during winter months.
The leopard tortoise is an important seed
disperser. Their scat or faeces is full of
undamaged seeds, and they therefore fill an
important ecological role. They can also swim
due to their buoyancy and unique ability to raise
Article by Lezelle Frank
Photo’s by Lezelle Frank