The Leopard Tortoise Stigmochelys (Geochelone) pardalis is a large grazing species
that favors semi-arid (not dry), thorny to grassland habitats. However, it
is also seen in some regions featuring a higher level of precipitation.
They have a very attractive shell pattern. The shell pattern
acts like camouflage in its natural home range. It is found throughout
savannahs of Africa from Sudan to the southern Cape. Being a tropical
tortoise, Leopard tortoises do not hibernate.
Here in the states it is one of the more popular tortoises and is
frequently bred. This large species can get over 2 feet long and weigh up to
100 pounds. Most are from 15-18" and 30-50 pounds. This is one of the few
species where the male can be larger than the female.
They require large pen's and is best kept outdoors in parts of the country
where the temperature reaches 90 °F and night temps stay in the 60's. They
also are sensitive to humidity. Cooler temps and a relative humidity above 70% can cause upper
respiratory problems. The subspecies Geochelone pardalis babcocki appears to
be more tolerant of high humidity.
In areas where the night temps are too cold or conditions don't permit them
to be outside year round, a heated greenhouse or indoor accommodations are
necessary. The minimum pen size for an adult is 10' x 10'.
The diet should be at least 70% grasses and hay. Not surprisingly, given
its preference for grassland habitats the Leopard tortoise grazes,
extensively upon mixed grasses weeds, and flowers. It also favors the fruit
and pads of the prickly pear (Opuntia sp.), succulents and thistles. "Meat"
foods should never be given to Leopard tortoises because it can lead to
excessive growth, high blood-urea levels, kidney/liver problems, and bladder
In captivity it is a common error to feed too much wet food such as
lettuce, tomatoes and fruit when in reality this tortoise requires a coarse,
high fiber diet. The sugar content of fruit will also alter the pH of the
gut which results in a die off of the normal gut flora. Feeding excessive fruit or soft
foods frequently leads to repeated flagellate (a type of parasite) and
other gut problems such as colic, most probably as a result of increased
More information can be found in the diet
section of this site.
Due to their prodigious growth rate, their demand for calcium and mineral
trace elements is high. It's usually recommended that calcium/D3
supplement be provided daily, but this can lead to excessive
supplementation. Excessive amounts do not just flush from the tortoises
system, but can and do lead to malabsorption of essential fatty acids and
other deficiencies such as iron, zinc, iodine, cooper. It can also
cause bladder stones. Calcium has a very narrow safe range of intake.
Excessive amounts of calcium can also lead to hypercalcemia and soft bones.
The addition of D3 can be toxic and lead to hypercalcemia as well.
In a captive environment, particularly in cooler parts of the US where
outdoor grazing cannot be provided on a year round basis, providing a
"natural" grasses and weeds are not always in option. There are some
excellent supplemental diets available today that can be used when reliance
on feeding store bought produce and these products eliminate the need to
supplement with the commonly used powder forms of Calcium/D3.
Unfortunately, many believe that tortoises naturally acquire almost all
of their fluid requirements from its food and that therefore they do not
require additional drinking water. Leopard tortoises are indeed adapted to a
semi-arid environment and its system of eliminating waste via uric acid
rather than via urea is clear evidence of this. Uric acid can be eliminated
using substantial lower levels of water wastage than can systems based on
urea, such as those of mammals. Therefore, tortoises, such as
Leopards, eliminate nitrogenous waste products with far greater water
conservation. Its behavior is also programmed to reflect this need not to
waste precious water.
The semi-solid, white deposits are expelled urates. Tortoises are programmed
not to use water in the bladder and to eliminate urates only if
replenishment is available. Depriving the tortoise of water will result in
urates being accumulated and quite often to dangerous levels.
During a rain tortoises will often drink and urinate simultaneously. This
behavior can be stimulated in hot weather by lightly spraying the tortoise
with a garden hose. In the wild, during hot and rain-free summers,
aestivation or semi-aestivation occurs. There are several factors that will
lead to aestivation. Lack of food and environmental water are major factors,
as is temperature. During aestivation periods tortoises maintain themselves
below ground, in burrows which provide a stable microclimate. In these
burrows temperatures are much lower than those above ground and the relative
humidity is very much higher. Combined with reduced activity, these factors
result in a vastly reduced rate of fluid loss via exhalation and little or
no need to urinate and prevent dehydration. In a captive situation, many
tortoises are not provided with a microclimate and easily become dehydrated,
especially when water is not provided for drinking.