The Cape of Good Hope SPCA recently released 174 indigenous tortoises back into the wild, where they belong. This release not only returned the tortoises to their rightful home but will also help protect South Africa’s biodiversity and native species.
No other region on earth can match South Africa’s diversity of tortoises, which includes two subspecies and fourteen known species.
Four of these species are common in the Western Cape: the leopard tortoise, the angulate tortoise, the padloper (the smallest tortoise in the world), and the unmistakable tent tortoise, which gets its name from the way its shell looks like it has little tents set up on it.
While they have been here since the age of the dinosaurs, 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 can be seen ambling along the roadside after a rain shower, crawling across rural roads just before sunset, hiding from the heat of the day under bushes in and around campgrounds, and 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 by people who have made the mistake of thinking that tortoises make good pets or that are confiscated by us or the provincial wildlife conservation authorities due to being kept in conditions that are not suitable for tortoises to live in.
The type of tortoise most often rescued is the angulate tortoise. With its beautiful shell markings and 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 No. 19 of 1974 (as updated in 2000). This means that these reptiles can’t be taken from the wild, moved, kept, imported into, or exported from the Western Cape Province without a permit from CapeNature.
The next most popular species are leopard tortoises, which, besides being the continent’s largest tortoise, are also extremely long-lived, with individuals having been recorded living for over 100 years. The SPCA also receives padlopers, which are very popular in the overseas pet trade due to their small size, and, to a lesser extent, tent tortoises.
The SPCA had come to have 174 tortoises of all four species collected over a period of just seven months that needed to be released back into the wild.
Even though some of the older tortoises had spent the majority of their lives in captivity, they immediately appeared to smile when they realised they were returning to their natural habitat, according to the SPCA’s team.
Upon being freed, some immediately settled down to munch on delectable fynbos, while others bolted off as quickly as their tiny, short legs could carry them to start their new lives in the wild.
The SPCA reported that the keeping of tortoises in captivity has had a serious impact on wild-living populations over the years.
Our shelled friends’ future in the wild is uncertain due to an increase in wildfires, a decrease in their natural habitat, a rise in traffic fatalities, and an increase in predatory animals like crows and domestic dogs.
You too can help them by not subjecting them to captivity and gently helping them cross busy roads.
Picture: Cape of Good Hope SPCA