South Africa has the richest diversity of tortoises in the world, with the Cape – including the Garden Route – considered the epicentre of tortoise land. With a little consideration and a whole lot of awareness, Southern Cape locals are in the unique position to contribute to the survival of these ancient reptiles.
WORDS Francini van Staden
While tortoises may have been around for millennia, increased landscape pressures are resulting in fewer and fewer tortoises reaching old age. And, while considered a secluded species, relatively common sightings of tortoises in the Southern Cape may give a false impression that they are not under threat.
South Africa is home to 31% of the world’s terrestrial tortoise species, of which three types call the Garden Route home.
The Angulate Tortoise (Chersina angulate) is the most common in the region, while the Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) and Common Padloper (Homopus areolatus) are also widely found across the Garden Route.
Sedgefield Island Conservancy member Peter Dawson says the Sedgefield island is ‘a little tortoise hotspot’, especially for angulates, but all three species are often spotted around golf courses, parks and even urban areas where they benefit from calcium-rich grasses sustaining strong carapace growth.
In the Klein Karoo, Leopard and Angulate tortoises blend well among the small shrubs and dry landscape, and fossil finds indicate tortoise populations were present in pre-historic times.
Tortoises were once so abundant in local regions such as the Groenvlei sand flats outside Sedgefield, they fulfilled key ecological roles such as grazing. “Man is tortoises’ greatest enemy because we transform and encroach on the natural habitats that protect and sustain them,” says Peter.
Race for survival
Depending on species and geographic region, tortoise egg incubation periods vary between ten and twelve months. Throughout this period, the eggs remain unprotected in a subsurface nest. Hatching with the help of a single egg-tooth at the front of the beak, a hatchling’s journey to the soil surface is filled with vulnerabilities and only the fittest survive.
Tortoises have the unique ability of being ever-growing; yet herpetologists around the world often say terrestrial tortoises are among the most endangered fauna, explaining why large tortoises are a rare sight. Securing conservation priority for a single species, such as the tortoise, remains a global challenge. “The best way to protect tortoises is to conserve their natural habitats,” says Peter.
Fortunately for the tortoise, its homeland overlaps with the Cape Fold Mountains, including the coastline south-west of the mountains, which have been identified as one of the Global 200 conservation priority eco-regions. “Locally, the Sedgefield Island Conservancy entered into an eight-year agreement with the Knysna Municipality whereupon we’ve established four envirogardens on vacant erven on the Sedgefield island. We nurture and protect these spaces to remain representative of local Sedgefield and salt marsh fauna and flora, which provide an ideal habitat for tortoises.”
A rescue team, inspired by the conservancy, actively relocates tortoises from sites under development. The Sedgefield Island Conservancy works closely with local conservation custodians SANParks and CapeNature. “Where development is planned locally, we arrange permission to enter the property prior to construction and clear the tortoises from the site. They are then safely relocated to the protected envirogardens. It can be quite a search to find them and we often call in volunteers from the community to assist in the search. The tortoises seem to be perfectly happy when relocated.”
Tortoises in the Garden Route are most at threat from the high and fast rate of fragmentation and transformation of highly threatened vegetation types such as Renosterveld. But even their natural habitat is not entirely hazard-free. Wildfires are a key threat, especially to young tortoises. And then there are road mortalities. According to the conservancy, road kills are more common in areas where road verges contain clumps of natural bush acting as little tortoise corridors. “The risk of being run over by cars is at its highest during the Christmas and Easter holiday periods, not only because of the increase in traffic but also because tortoises are more active during warmer months. Our rescue team works closely with the Knysna Veterinarian Clinic, which treats tortoise injuries.”
The Sedgefield Island Conservancy appeals to road users to look out for tortoises crossing the roads and to pick them up gently, keep them horizontal to retain the moisture in their shells, and move them out of harm’s way. To minimise disturbance, it is important to place the tortoise in the direction it faced when attempting to cross the road. “It is not uncommon to see a traffic jam in Sedgefield caused by a tortoise crossing the road,” says Peter.
Several South African tortoise species, including the local species in the Garden Route, are listed by the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) as endangered species, necessitating trade control to ensure species survival. “Tortoises are protected species. Capturing requires a permit from conservation authorities. Yet, I’m very sure some of our tortoises are taken out of the region as pets, without the required conservation permits,” says Peter. Most captive tortoises have not been born into captivity, and remain wild at heart. Some species are hardly able to survive in captivity. The Garden Route species flourish on a combination of grasses, succulents, sappy leaves and even small insects. Human interference, and a lettuce diet, can cause great harm.
Although there is uncertainty as to what may happen to the Sedgefield island envirogardens in future, the hope remains that the authorities will agree to an extended conservation agreement. “It is not only the Sedgefield Island Conservancy that is aware of tortoises – the entire community as a whole is looking after the interest of tortoises. It’s the emblem of Sedgefield; it’s part of the Sedgefield ethos.
“While total population numbers are stable, our tortoises are definitely prone to everyday vulnerabilities such as dogs, cars and even lawnmowers. The conservancies across the Garden Route work together to conserve as many areas as possible, to protect tortoises among other local fauna,” says Peter.
And just as lending a little help for a tortoise crossing the road can go a long way, so can our awareness, ultimately allowing them to return to safe havens.