Let us look after our Zimbabwean Tortoises

How often does one see a tortoise in the bush? They are experts in camouflage and often overlooked. The better known Leopard Tortoise or Mountain Tortoise [Geochelone pardalis] is widespread throughout its African territory, though it occurs in low densities over much of the range. In Zimbabwe, they prefer the lower altitudes of the country and have recently been seen in the Zambezi Valley area.

There are many tortoises in captivity due to a variety of reasons and often this can be detrimental to their health and well-being. The Leopard Tortoise is strictly a herbivore and its natural wild diet consists of 70 to 75% of mixed grasses - in captivity, these tortoises are often fed too many vegetables, salads and fruit. Certain vegetable types e.g. spinach, broccoli, excess cabbage; fruit given to the wrong type of species etc. can bring on severe stomach upsets, encourage parasites, cause goitre, shell deformation, mineral intolerance etc. Much scientific research has and is being done regarding diets of these creatures worldwide. In the wild, tortoises wander over a wide area talking small quantities of a very wide variety of seasonally available food.

In captivity, this wandering and access to wide varieties of healthy edible food is restricted. Turn it the other way - how well would a human do on a diet of mostly raw grass with not enough of our own `cultural' food included? In captivity, there are however certain situations where supplementing with some vegetable types like cucumber, pumpkin, carrots, courgettes, some lettuce etc. is necessary and this may be unavoidable for the survival of some individuals, but, wherever possible, look to the needs of the tortoise, not to what we think is best or what is convenient. Above all, tortoises are wild animals that should remain in their original wild habitats.

Two species of hinge-backed tortoises are found in Zimbabwe. The Specks [Kinixys] - found throughout most of the country and Bells [Kinixys belliana] - restricted to the eastern border with Mozambique. Some research suggests there may still be confusion regarding the identification between and distribution of these two species. Their diet includes plants, grass, fruit and browsing on carrion, snails, millipedes etc.

There has been much said about the pros and cons of bush fires lately. Unfortunately, the tortoise is likely to be one of the many victims of a raging veld fire. Much like the stationary vegetation around it, a tortoise is unable to outrun or find safe shelter from the heat and flames. An example of the effect a fire may have on tortoises comes from an excerpt in a research report published in the South African Journal of Wildlife Research [1988]. "After a recent fire swept through large parts of the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, Mark Wright took the opportunity to investigate the survival of the angulate tortoise. He walked random transects through a 2 500 ha area burnt the day before and found that, in a rocky area, 15 out of 17 tortoises survived the fire. In the plains area, where sandstone boulders were widely scattered or absent, only 3 out of 22 were still alive. It appeared that in rocky areas tortoises sought shelter in crevices and behind rocks. These tortoises were either totally unscathed by fire or only exposed parts were burnt.

In the end, we will only conserve what we love, we will only love what we understand and we will only understand what we have learnt.