The Cape of Good Hope SPCA recently returned 174 indigenous tortoises back to the wild where they belong, saved from a lifetime of being unsuitable pets.
South Africa has fourteen known species of tortoise (two of which are subspecies); a boast of tortoise diversity that no other region on the planet can claim. In the Western Cape, we find four of these species occurring in relative abundance across the range; leopard tortoise, angulate tortoise, padloper (the world’s smallest tortoise), and the unmistakable tent tortoise, so-named for its appearance of having little tents pitched across its shell.
While they have been here since the age of the dinosaur, many locals and tourists alike will most probably have had an encounter with one of our tortoises at some point when travelling around the province. Our tortoises are often spotted ambling along roadsides after a rain shower, crawling across rural roads just before sunset, hiding away from the heat of the day under bushes in and around camp sites and increasingly – being kept as “pets” in urban gardens!
The Cape of Good Hope SPCA’s Wildlife Department receives around 19 tortoises a month that are either surrendered to us by people who have made the mistake of thinking that tortoises make good pets, or which are confiscated by us or the provincial wildlife conservation authorities due to being kept in terrible conditions not suitable for tortoises to live in.
The type of tortoise we most often rescue is the angulate tortoise (Chersina angulata). With its beautiful shell markings and an ability to survive in most conditions, this is the species that often finds itself being picked up in the wild and taken home to be kept as someone’s pet, eaten, harvested for traditional medicine or sold on the illegal pet market. It is a protected species under the Nature Conservation Ordinance 19 of 1974 (as amended in 2000), and as such, these reptiles may not be collected from the wild, transported, kept, imported into or exported from the Western Cape Province without special permission in the form of a permit from CapeNature.
The next most popular species we find are leopard tortoises (Stigmochelys pardalis), which besides being the continent’s largest tortoise (adults can weigh upwards of 50 kgs), are also extremely long-lived with individuals having been recorded living to over 100 years (so it is likely that your “pet” will outlive you). We also receive padlopers (another threatened species in the Western Cape, very popular on the overseas pet trade due to their small size), and to a lesser extent tent tortoises. It is how we came to have 174 tortoises of all four species (collected over a period of just 7 months) needing to be released back into the wild.
Having been given a suitable release site carefully chosen for each by CapeNature, it was next a job of getting the relevant permits in order (to transport and release tortoises), checking that all 174 tortoises were in the best of health and then packing them carefully into boxes for the long drive out into the wilds where they belong. Some of the older tortoises had been in captivity for most of their lives, but upon realising that they were going back in the environment they were born into, immediately seemed to smile. Upon their release, some settled down right away to munch on tasty fynbos while others ran off just as fast as their short little legs could carry them to begin their new lives back in Nature.
The keeping of tortoises in captivity has had a serious impact on wild-living populations over the years. Coupled with an increase in wild fires, loss of natural habitat, increase in road mortalities and an explosion in predator animals like crows and domestic dogs, our shelled friends face an uncertain future in the wild. Please help them by not subjecting them to captivity, helping them across busy