One day, you were visiting a reptile shop and saw a Leopard tortoise in one of the enclosures. It got you thinking that you should get one as a pet because they are adorable. Well, this majestic tortoise, indeed, has a very striking shape and coloration. So it’s no surprise that you’d want one as a companion. However, before you do, please read this guide on how to care for a Leopard tortoise first!
Many beginners must realize that caring for a Leopard tortoise can be deceptively tricky. Yes, this particular variant is quite hardy. Yet, without proper knowledge, you may endanger your pet’s life! As a dedicated reptile hobbyist, I’ve spent hours observing and caring for my beloved Leopard tortoise companions. And today, I’m thrilled to share my Leopard Tortoise care guide with you so your new pet can get the best home it deserves!
Importance of Caring for Leopard Tortoises Responsibly
The leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis, also often referred to as Geochelone pardalis) has a beautifully patterned, perfectly domed shell adorned with distinctive, intricate spots that look like a leopard’s coat. They are truly one-of-a-kind, both in their appearance and their unique needs. These gentle reptiles have captured my heart, and I can’t wait to share my knowledge and experiences with you.
In this blog series, we’ll talk in-depth about the world of leopard tortoises. We shall explore every aspect of their care, including their natural habitat. This way, we can recreate a comfortable and thriving environment in vivarium captivity. I’ll walk you through the essentials of nutrition, health, and even the quirks of leopard tortoise behavior.
Whether you’re a seasoned tortoise keeper or a newbie, there will be something here for everyone!
Throughout my years of caring for these magnificent creatures, I’ve learned that proper care is a responsibility and a life journey. With commitment, you can ensure your leopard tortoise lives a healthy, long life. It’s not only about keeping these incredible reptiles alive but also how to make them happy to be a part of your life.
Native Habitat & Behavior of Leopard Tortoise
Did you know that the Leopard tortoise originally came from Africa? The origin place of the Leopard Tortoise could not be more different than America or Canada. So, to keep this beautiful chelonian at home, you’ll have to learn about its natural habitat and behavior first!
Immersing yourself in a Leopard tortoise’s natural life is what a responsible pet owner should do. This way, you can replicate the best conditions, and your new tortoise will live happily in captivity at home.
Leopard Tortoise Physical Characteristic
The Leopard tortoise’s scientific name, Stigmochelys pardalis, literally means “leopard-marked tortoise”. The name comes from the Greek word stigma, which means mark, and chelone, which means tortoise. And then, in Latin, Pardus means leopard. As I’ve mentioned earlier, true to its scientific name, this tortoise’s most remarkable characteristic is the color of their carapaces.
Adult leopard tortoises can grow up to 30 inches or so in length and weigh close to 28 pounds (13 kg)! Depending on where in Africa they are found, some can grow larger, up to 44 pounds, or even larger.
The shape of the shell, the carapace, is like a high dome. The young Leopard tortoises have black blotches, spots, dashes, or stripes on a yellow background. On the other hand, the mature leopard tortoises may not look as attractive. In their case, the pattern on their carapaces has faded, turning brown or grey.
This is why you will mostly find juvenile tortoises in the pet store because of their brighter coloration. They sell better, thanks to their brilliant markings.
The leopard tortoise generally has a yellow, bright brown to tan colored head. Their limbs are usually colored like the head.
Leopard Tortoise Native Habitat
As I’ve mentioned earlier, the leopard tortoise comes from Africa, specifically extending from the southern African continent up to the east coast. They also appear generally east of the Rift Valley up to the southern part of Sudan.
You can find the leopard tortoise in the following countries, to name a few:
- South Sudan
- South Africa
However, they don’t inhabit the humid areas of Central Africa.
When it comes to their preferred habitat, the Leopard tortoise is versatile. Hence, this species can adapt to live in various parts of the world, earning its worldwide popularity.
You can find it in the wild in semi-desert, grasslands, scrublands, or even forest areas. However, usually, they live in semi-arid, thorny, or grassland. They thrive in places like brushlands and savannas. And here is a unique tidbit: in cold or hot weather, Leopard tortoises make their nests in abandoned jackals, fox, or aardvark holes!
However, such diverse habitat may cause complications if your tortoise is a wild captive. Depending on which kind of area they are from, they will have different needs! Some scientists even argue that the Leopard tortoise consists of different subspecies, depending on where they live.
Although luckily, in the US, most of the Leopard tortoises that you come across in pet shops are likely captive-bred. Nevertheless, you need to keep that in mind. Sometimes, your enclosure may not be suitable because of their innate trait, so you have to be ready to make versatile adjustments.
Leopard Tortoise Behavior and Temperament
One of the reasons why we love Leopard tortoises is their amusing behaviors!
While we’ve mentioned that they don’t make nests of their own, they do live in the abandoned holes of other mammals. However, Leopard tortoises do dig holes to lay eggs. So, if you want to keep them, ensure you have some caves in your enclosure. And don’t be surprised if you tortoises dig holes!
Moreover, leopard tortoises are diurnal, meaning they are active during daytime. They like to hang out in shades. However, in extremely hot or cold seasons, they do become less inclined to move around. Leopard tortoises are like any other reptile that can’t regulate their own body heat!
Owning a leopard tortoise is quite chill. It’s perfect for you who prefer less intense animals. They mostly eat and rest for the majority of their day. And just like typical tortoises, they are slow-moving.
However, they are capable of sprinting when scared. South African Leopard tortoise named Berty was dubbed as the world’s fastest tortoise. He could move up to 0.28 meters per second!
Leopard tortoises are non-aggressive and typically won’t bite your finger. If you handle them too much, though, they will retreat into their shell, a defensive posture. During mating season, however, males can be quite territorial and may fight one another. They’re not social animals!
What kind of substrate is best for a leopard tortoise enclosure?
Choosing the right substrate is the most basic leopard tortoise care that you have to master first! Before bringing your pet home, you must prepare their bedding. This part is quite tricky, yet essential to your leopard tortoise’s well-being. so pay attention!
Based on my own research and consulting with Leopard tortoise experts in the reptile lover community, I’ve managed to put together this guide! Depending on your setup, I’ve picked several alternatives that may work out for you.
Before we get right down to it, I’d like to forewarn you that there are a lot of substrates marketed for all kinds of tortoises out there. Some contain soil, a mixture of sand, and some are wood-chip based. Not all of them are suitable for your leopard tortoise!
You need to think about the natural habitat of this lovely species first. As we have discussed before, the Leopard tortoise comes from the south to east part of Africa. So, you need to choose your substrate mix that closely mimics their place of origin.
The place in that area is usually quite dry and hot. The land they live in usually contains sand. And not just the type of substrate, you also need to pay attention to the level of humidity and dryness of the substrate. So, based on this information, we can mix our own substrate!
If your leopard tortoise usually lives in a very dry area, you should not put them on wet substrate. Conversely, some leopard tortoises may get accustomed to a substrate with relatively higher moistness. So, you need to adjust your mix by spraying more moisture. You can also control the humidity level in the soil by planting some trees or grass!
Generally, your leopard tortoise will enjoy substrate with a humidity level of around 40% to 60%. There are dedicated tools to measure your soil humidity. I think it is worth getting one, considering that your Leopard tortoise will live a long time, and their enclosure will need constant humidity adjustment.
Recommended Substrate Depth
As we have discussed above, Leopard tortoises like to dig the ground, especially when they are about to lay eggs. They don’t create intricate tunnels on their own, but still, they do dig up holes to hide, regulating their body temperature. So, I highly recommend that your substrate should be as deep as possible.
Ideally, it should be around 6 inches! But if that’s not possible, even 2 inches will not be too bad.
The Best Substrate for a Leopard Tortoise
Considering their native homeland in Africa, the best substrate for Leopard tortoises is a mixture of soil and sand!
The soil and sand combination is ideal for Leopard tortoises because it retains the perfect humidity and temperature. I’ve told you before that tortoises can’t regulate their body heat on their own. They depend on their environment, in this case, the substrate. But what is the best composition?
The proportion may vary, depending on where you live. If you are somewhere in California, with a lot of humidity, add more sand. If you live somewhere dry, like Texas, introduce more soil to the mix. However, in my case, I stick by the 70% part of soil and 30% part of sand.
So, for every 10 lbs of substrate, I use 7 lbs of soil and 3 lbs of sand. I adjust the humidity after mixing them.
Please note that Leopard tortoise may ingest some soil! Yes, they do eat soil accidentally sometimes. So, your soil must be natural. Do not add fertilizer, not even organic compost! It’s best to leave it pure because compost may contain harmful bacteria or chemicals that may affect your leopard tortoise.
For the sand, I usually choose the soft grain variant. I do not like adding pebbles to the mix because the tortoise may accidentally eat it.
I do not recommend that you only use sand! It may cause temperature problems. Sand usually retains heat longer, and your leopard tortoise may overheat as a result.
And here is a secret substrate mix that I also use! In dry summer, I introduce coconut fiber to the bedding! The cocopeat can retail longer humidity. However, I do not leave them there permanently because they do get moldy.
To sum up, the best substrate for leopard tortoise is a mixture of natural soil and soft sand. Coconut fiber can also be introduced to the mix in some cases. Commercially sold substrates for tortoises are available, too. Although for leopard tortoise, I personally prefer to make my own mix.
Substrates That You Should Avoid
Not all tortoise substrates sold in pet stores are suitable for your Leopard tortoise! In general, I avoid using the following types:
Your leopard tortoises may get hurt by the splinters. Also, it’s possible that they may swallow some of the wood chips. It can cause stomach problems! Moreover, some woods, like Pine and Cedar, can be toxic for tortoises.
It’s the most common substrate for tortoises available in a pet shop. However, Sand alone is not suitable for leopard tortoises. As I’ve told you, you need to mix them with pure soil. Very fine sand without soil may get into your eyes and lungs. This is why dusty substrates are also a very bad idea.
I am not saying that fiber substrate is always bad for leopard tortoises. As I’ve mentioned above, they have their use in hot and dry climates. Although, you will have to maintain this type of substrate more closely. After all, they can get moldy quickly and be a fire hazard if it’s too dry.
Even though paper is readily available, it’s not good for tortoise bedding. Be it paper towels or old newspapers, you should avoid it. It is not porous, like sand, which means it stays wet if it gets wet. It can’t retain heat as well as sand, either. In any case, it’s not good substrate.
These substrates I mentioned may sometimes be dangerous. However, it’s always better to avoid unnecessary risk!
Moreover, it’s important to partially change the substrate once every 5 or 6 months, depending on the size of your enclosure and the size of your tortoise. When your substrate starts to smell, remove the top layer! Regardless, cleaning your leopard tortoise terrarium regularly is best so the substrate is not contaminated.
For beginners, it’s very likely that the first leopard tortoise you get is still a tiny juvenile or maybe even a hatchling. They start about 1.5 inches. So, it’s best to get them indoor housing! Plus, in the USA, it may not be possible to keep them outdoors during winter anyway.
To create the leopard tortoise vivarium setup, you will need some preparation.
For a tiny baby leopard tortoise, an aquarium size 24 inches x 24 inches will be good enough. However, please note that your adorable tiny pet may grow quickly, outgrowing its container. In that case, it’s better to prepare a larger aquarium, as large as possible.
I believe that adult leopard tortoises will be happier with at least a 4ft x 8ft enclosure. Ideally, 10ft x 10ft will be much better. It provides you with enough area for the tortoise to exercise. Larger indoor housing will also allow you to freely place items like a water container and a cave and provide a good basking area.
The housing doesn’t always have to be from a glass aquarium. A large tube or large wooden box can also be good. After getting the ideally sized enclosure, you can start adding the substrate that we have discussed above.
Then, you can add accessories like wide flat rocks, a small water fountain, caves, and even plants.
Temperature and lighting requirements
To create a healthy indoor enclosure, you have to follow proper leopard tortoise UVB lighting requirements and set up the correct temperature.
You can install a heat spot in one corner of the indoor housing to provide a basking area. It should be around 90 to 95 F in that section. On the other corner, you can add another heater lamp to go up to 80 to 90 F.
With at least two different heat gradients inside the indoor housing, your leopard tortoise can regulate their body temperature more healthily. Make sure that the night temps do not drop below 75 F!
Then, make sure that you get UVB lighting for the indoor setup! It is essential for your leopard tortoises to process nutrients. The UV rays will allow them to make vitamin D2 into D3, which helps process dietary calcium. Without UVB lighting, your tortoise pet may develop abnormal shell growth and other deformities!
You should turn the UVB Lighting on for 10-12 hours a day and turn it off at night. Although, it really depends on the intensity and the type of lighting brand.
With all these heating sources, make sure that you maintain the humidity, 40% to 60% during the day and 70% to 80% at night. Also, make sure that you have good ventilation!
It’s always preferable to keep your leopard tortoise in outdoor housing. If you have a large enough yard and live in a climate that doesn’t get cold, your leopard tortoise will be a lot happier to live outside. However, this only applies to older tortoises.
Baby leopard tortoises may be too fragile to be left outside with wilder temperature fluctuations. Other animals like birds, cats, and dogs may pray on them, so watch out! They are also prone to overheating if they expose themselves to direct sunlight.
You do not need that UV lighting for outdoor setup. The sun will do its job helping your leopard tortoise process calcium. They love to bask in the slope, so make sure to add this feature to your outdoor housing design!
In outdoor pens, you will need proper wall fencing. A water container for leopard tortoise hydration and soaking is also absolutely necessary. You can build a shallow fountain. Basic soil and some sand are great for the substrate. An organic soil and sand mix with some coconut fiber (alternatively grass or hay) works well.
Moreover, make sure that part of the enclosure is covered with grazing grass! Bermuda grass, ryegrass, or fescue sod will work. It may surprise beginner owners, but your leopard tortoise actually loves eating grasses!
However, you also need to leave a few grassless spots. This way, your tortoise can dig! It’s also helpful when they want to lay eggs.
Safe plants for leopard tortoises include grazing grass, natural shrubs, trees, or bushes. They offer extra protection against the elements. Plus, it’ll make the tortoise feel more secure. Choose non-toxic plant varieties that work in your climate.
Hide boxes are essential as well for outdoor housing. It will help your leopard tortoise feel safe and secure!
Diet & Nutrition
The leopard tortoises are herbivores, so they mainly eat leaves! That’s why it’s important to set up grazing areas with grass because they mainly eat grass. It’s one of the most iconic grazing tortoise species, after all.
They also like succulents such as aloe vera and thornless cacti, thistles, and forbs. In any case, they are mainly found grazing all kinds of leaves in their habitats.
You can feed them vegetables:
- leafy salads
- curly kale
- Brussel tops
- spring greens
- Bell peppers
So, any kind of fiber, juicy goodness!
In the wild, leopard tortoises may gnaw on bones to get calcium. However, It is best to feed them calcium-based supplements and vitamins in captivity. It’s necessary for their bone development, carapace, and also for their eggshells.
Foods to Avoid
We don’t recommend you feeding your leopard tortoises:
- Beet greens
- Swiss chard
These leafy veggies may bind calcium and flush them out of your tortoise’s system, which is not good!
Best calcium and vitamins for leopard tortoises from Amazon C
Check out the following calcium and vitamins suitable for your leopard tortoises:
- Zoo Med Reptile Calcium with Vitamin D3
- Nutrobal 100g. Calcium Balancer & Multivitamins
- Rep-Cal SRP00200 Phosphorous-Free Calcium
You can tell that your leopard tortoise is healthy if it has a smooth shell and clear eyes. Moreover, you can also observe their appetite. Normally, leopard tortoises will eat constantly. They are such a glutton! So, if you notice that they refuse to eat, it is a sign of unhealthiness.
Avoiding metabolic bone disease in leopard tortoises is also important. You need to set up proper UVB lighting if you keep them indoors. In outdoor, you also make sure that their housing gets enough sunlight! Feeding them supplement that contains vitamin D, multivitamin, and calcium balancer is also important!
Common health problems in captive leopard tortoises include respiratory issues and infections due to humidity. So, make sure that the housing is not too humid, clean, and has good circulation.
Also, watch out for shell rot, which is caused by a fungal infection. Signs of shell rot include a dry, flaky shell that may have a foul odor. Consult your veterinarian to deal with serious issues!
Please note that tortoises can transfer salmonella to humans. So, make sure that you clean yourself after you handle them!
In normal circumstances, your captive leopard tortoise is sexually mature when they are around six or older. They will begin to mate! The male leopard tortoises will fight against each other during the mating season to win over the females. You may notice that they will ram their competitors.
Don’t be alarmed when this behavior occurs because the fighting is typically not deadly. However, you still have to pay attention closely in case of injury!
Male leopard tortoises will choose females who are larger than themselves! There will be some courting rituals, like chasing and bumping. They will even make vocal sounds during mating.
If the mating is successful, around a couple of months later, the females may start to dig holes to lay eggs. During that period, make sure that your lady leopard tortoise is well-hydrated. A leopard tortoise can produce around 5 to 30 eggs!
The egg will hatch after around 5 to 18 months! The temperature inside the nest is about 28 to 31 Celsius, and humidity should be around 70%. Newly hatched baby leopard tortoises may still carry egg yolk as a food reserve. It takes several days until it’s all absorbed.
Average lifespan of leopard tortoises
Did you know that the Leopard tortoise is an animal that has a long life span? They become mature after they’ve reached 12 to 15 years old in the wild. Captive bred usually mature faster.
Generally, Leopard tortoises can live around 30 to 75 years in captivity. However, they can live as long as 100 years old if you take care of them under the right conditions. So, they may even outlive you!
You’d have to consider their long average lifespan before you get them. It’s a lifelong commitment. We recommend that you create a plan for the unexpected in case you can no longer take care of them. Your local zoos and wildlife sanctuaries may take them in if you make arrangements.
As we have mentioned above, young leopard tortoise has more bright yellow splotches on their carapace shells. The coloration loses its spark as they age.
Protecting the Species
When it comes to the legal consideration of owning a leopard tortoise in the USA, consider several things. First of all, as far as we know, it is okay to breed and own a domestic leopard tortoise.
However, some states may require that you have a permit, and you may have to adhere to some restrictions. It’s best to consult with the local breeder or pet shop when it comes to the legality of getting a leopard tortoise. It’s important to note that you are not allowed to import wild leopard tortoises from Africa!
Even though leopard tortoises are listed as the least concern by the IUCN Redlist, their natural habitat is getting more threatened by human activities each day. Excessive capture and land development may cause their number to dwindle. Fortunately, it’s possible to breed them even here in the USA!
Books and guides on tortoise care
If you want to delve deeper beyond my leopard tortoise care guide, I highly recommend the following books:
- Tortoises: A Beginner’s Guide to Tortoise Care
- Tortoises for Beginners: Appropriate Husbandry and Care of the Different Tortoise Species
- Keeping a Pet Tortoise
These are great entry-level reads for beginners who are only getting into the Chelonian hobby.
Online communities and forums
For online communities, I usually visit the following websites whenever I need hands-on advice from tortoise hobbyists worldwide:
Also, if you need to get in touch with a reptile veterinarian, try the Association of Reptiles and Amphibians Veterinarians website. Your local veterinarians may also have resources related to leopard tortoise care!
Caring for a leopard tortoise is an absolutely rewarding journey! These striking reptiles, known for their beautifully patterned shells, have captivated my heart, and I’m sure yours, too. However, responsible care is essential to ensure they lead healthy, fulfilling lives. If you are a beginner, it does get overwhelming. But if you are determined, I believe that you can enjoy these amazing tortoise responsibilities, too.
This comprehensive guide on how to care for leopard tortoise covers almost everything. It’s a lifelong commitment, with leopard tortoises potentially living up to 100 years. So, it’s important that you learn the correct way. Caring for a leopard tortoise is all about long-lasting companionship that can span generations, making it truly rewarding!
Questions and Answers
In what ways can observing a leopard tortoise’s behaviors provide insights into their natural habitats and ecosystems?
Observing a leopard tortoise’s behaviors, such as burrowing, basking, and foraging, can offer insights into their natural habitats. These habits reveal their adaptations for surviving in arid environments and their need for thermoregulation.
How might caring for a leopard tortoise influence one’s perspective on wildlife conservation and broader environmental issues?
Caring for a leopard tortoise can deepen your appreciation for wildlife and environmental issues by fostering a personal connection with such a beautiful species. It inspires you to have a sense of responsibility for preserving natural habitats.
How has the introduction of leopard tortoises in educational settings, like schools, impacted students’ understanding and appreciation of reptiles?
Schools need to get in touch with hobbyist communities and wildlife sanctuaries that promote leopard tortoise conservations! Students will feel more compelled to take action and learn about it if they get the chance to get up close to this beautiful animal.
How can the community engagement associated with owning a leopard tortoise lead to broader discussions about reptile welfare and conservation?
Keeping a leopard tortoise may be a rare hobby for most of us who live in the USA. This animal is exotic, so it sparks other people’s curiosity. When the community get personal with the tortoise, they will realize how beautiful and majestic this creature is, compelling them to learn more about its conservation!
Do leopard tortoises need UVB light?
Absolutely yes! The UVB light will help the tortoise to utilize vitamin D, which helps them process calcium. It’s important in their bone development!
Can leopard tortoises be housed together?
Yes, you can! Leopard tortoises are normally not social creatures. They keep to their own. Although be careful when it’s mating season because the males get territorial and aggressive.