Leopard Tortoise

Leopard Tortoise

Stigmochelys pardalis
Population size
Life Span
10-75 yrs
0.5 km/h
15-54 kg
30-70 cm

The Leopard tortoise is a big beautiful tortoise and is the fourth largest out of the tortoise family. Their shell pattern is attractive and also provides perfect camouflage in its home range. These animals are shy and they withdraw into the comfort of their shell when they sense any form of disturbance or danger.


Leopard tortoises inhabit the savannas of Southern and Eastern Africa, from Ethiopia to Sudan and from Natal to southern Angola, as well as South Africa and part of southwestern Africa. The hot, dry savannas have sparse vegetation, and the tortoises favor semi-arid to grassland areas, characteristic of grazing species. They are often seen in shady areas or resting underneath brushy plants to escape the immense heat. Some of them, however, inhabit rainy areas.

Habits and Lifestyle

This species is not particularly social. Males will determine dominance through fighting, however, such dominance does not decide much more than access to a certain female. A leopard tortoise’s day is mostly taken up with eating and resting. Their back legs are trunk-like and their front legs are paddle shaped and they have "pigeon-toes" with a row of little "nails". These legs enable them to move very fast and maneuver easily over rocky terrain. Typically slow movers, they can sprint when startled or scared. They can also climb and can float and swim slowly due to the sizeable lung space in their large, domed shell that allows buoyancy. They have well-developed and good eyesight. A tortoise will hiss when it is scared, but the sound isn’t always from its mouth. When it quickly pulls it head and limbs into its shell, this forces all the air from their lungs, which may cause a hiss.

Seasonal behavior

Diet and Nutrition

Strict herbivores (folivores), these animals will eat grass, but prefer to graze on succulents, flowers, fungi, berries, and a range of other fruit. They will sometimes eat ash or old bones, possibly to supplement their levels of calcium.

Mating Habits

9 to 14 months
9-12 months
5 to 30
at birth
5-30 eggs

Leopard tortoises are monogamous and breed only with one partner per year during the mating season. Males and females both become increasingly aggressive when they are looking for a mate, fighting by butting and ramming their rivals. This species breeds from May until October. After mating, a female digs a hole from 100 to 300 mm deep in the ground, where she will lay her frail, white, spherical eggs. Incubation is for 9 to 12 months, varying according to the location, temperature, and precipitation. 5 to 7 clutches may be produced in one breeding season, around 3 to 4 weeks apart, with 5 to 30 eggs per clutch, with larger females laying more. Once the eggs are laid, the mother covers them up and leaves. Hatchlings are independent immediately upon emerging. Leopard tortoises reach maturity at five years old.


Population threats

Leopard tortoises are seen throughout their geographic range as agricultural pests, and because of this, retaliatory killings do happen. They are also a staple food item for many local peoples, so where human populations are high, leopard tortoises are considered vulnerable.

Population number

According to IUCN, the Leopard tortoise is common and widespread throughout its range but no overall population estimate is available. According to the University of Michigan (Museum of Zoology) resource, there are 5,990 individuals in Tanzania and only 500 individuals in Ethiopia. Overall, currently this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List.

Ecological niche

Leopard tortoise is important seed predator and disperses seeds throughout its environment.

Fun Facts for Kids

  • There is little evidence that tortoises can distinguish different colors. A study recently proposed that juvenile Leopard tortoises approach colors like red and various shades of green most often. As for sounds, in general, tortoises are especially sensitive to sounds that are under 1,000 Hz.
  • Leopard tortoises can stay underwater for as long as 10 minutes.
  • It is almost impossible for a predator to be a threat to these tortoises because of their enormous, hard, impregnable shell, which gives complete protection to its legs and body.
  • The upper shells of turtles and tortoises are protected by scutes, plates made from keratin - just like our fingernails.
  • Leopard tortoises do not have a nuchal shield, which is a protective scute above a tortoise’s neck, which all other tortoises have. This means this species is the only one in the family able to raise its head, and so is the only one that can swim.
  • These tortoises store water during dry winter months in what is called a "bursa sac", a reserve that is used for hydration as well as moistening the baked ground, so it is easier to dig a nest in which to lay eggs.


1. Leopard Tortoise Wikipedia article - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leopard_tortoise
2. Leopard Tortoise on The IUCN Red List site - http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/163449/0

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