27 August 2012 by Julienne du Toit

The tortoises are waking up

From the beginning of September, tortoises will leave their hibernation and move out across the land, blithely crossing roads in the search for mates and food.

In spring, tortoises are on the move. Photo Chris Marais

In the middle of August, the leopard tortoise in my garden awoke. This little piece of news galvanised the whole household. Said tortoise had been in hibernation for the winter months, still as a stone, under a shrub, against the trunk of a small tree.

As I can tell you with some experience, they come out with a vengeance, ravenous and ready to mate.

As he slept, fallen leaves built up a bed around him. His patterned shell made him almost invisible.

South Africa is home to around a dozen tortoise species, and has the greatest tortoise biodiversity in the world. Photo Chris Marais

So to see he had moved was very exciting. A winter of repeated snows and unseasonable icy rains had left us yearning for warmth and spring.

But let me just add this: he didn’t move very much. For the past 2 weeks I’ve been monitoring him. When the sun is shining on his little patch, filtered through thin branches, he puts his head out, opens his bleary eyes and moves a few centimetres.

Other than that, he just parks there, soaking up the warmth and watching the dog and the birds and whatever else in the garden – reacquainting himself with life, I think. When the sun goes over, he huddles up against the tree trunk, pulls his head in again and resembles the stone that he became during winter.

A tortoise makes its way down the road at Karoo National Park. Photo Chris Marais

A few days ago, I could bear it no more. I know I shouldn’t interfere, but I moved him about a metre, into fuller sunshine, next to a succulent plant he loves to eat. It took hours before he warmed up to do anything. 

And this is what he did: he ignored the plant and turned his back on the sunshine. He moved very slowly (even for a tortoise), right back to where he’d been before.

I’ve never had the privilege of watching a tortoise come out of hibernation before. I don’t think many have. In a few days my husband and I are heading off across the Karoo, and in a week or so, I expect the tortoises will all be out.

And I can tell you with some experience, they come out with a vengeance, ravenous and ready to mate. They march across roads (hence their Afrikaans name – padloper, or roadwalker), heedless of traffic or passers-by. They’re on a mission.

There are signs all over the Karoo warning you to look out for tortoises. You’ll see people pulling over their cars to pick up tortoises and carry them to safety on the other side of the road.

My tortoise? Well, he’s still too young to be looking for mates (I presume). So he’ll probably lay waste to the succulents I planted for him, and relax in his ground-level birdbath pool.

• Disclosure: I don’t have a permit for this tortoise. My neighbour rescued it from the maws of her Great Dane. When he’s grown too big for the crows to pick up, I’ll take him to the nearby Mountain Zebra National Park, where he’ll hopefully do his bit to keep the grass short in the camping ground.

Category: Wildlife

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