KEEPING LEOPARDS IN THE UK

I decided to write this basic care sheet some years ago after finding that although there is extensive information on the Leopard tortoise all over the internet, it is hard to find an easy to read, basic outline of keeping this species in the UK. They are very different from the usual Mediterranean species that are kept in this country and a great deal of thought and research should be done before committing to a leopard tortoise. They are not an easy species to keep, especially when fully grown, and shouldn't be the first choice for a new tortoise keeper. After some years of caring for them, I don't believe they should be bred in the UK as there aren't enough good homes for them once they reach adult size. I have come to this conclusion after years of rehoming adults that can no longer be looked after. Many of the previous owners had no idea what a commitment they would need one day.  

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Before deciding to commit to a leopard tortoise, ask yourself these questions - 

1) Can you afford to heat its winter quarters once it is fully grown?

2) Do you have the large amount of space that a fully grown leopard tortoise needs (during summer and winter)?

3) Are you able to provide enough good high fibre food during even the coldest winter months?

4) Are you prepared for the large vet bills that a leopard tortoise could incur? Remember that even the most simple procedures such as worming could involve anesthesia to perform them, and specialist vets don't come cheap!

5) Are you prepared for the large amount of waste that a large tortoise produces, A small pony wouldn't be a bad comparison!

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If you are prepared, then read on!

 

 

 

LEOPARD TORTOISES IN THE WILD

 

Leopard tortoises are from Southern and Eastern Africa and are the second largest African land tortoise (after Geochelone sulcata), and favour semi-arid grassland areas. They will graze extensively on any available food and then shelter from the hottest part of the day under thorny bushes or even in the discarded burrows of other animals. Our aim is to replicate this as much as possible in captivity.

 

 

 

 

INDOOR ACCOMMODATION FOR SMALL/YOUNG LEOPARDS

 

When I got my first small captive-bred Leopard tortoises from an association newsletter, they came with a 4ft vivarium, a 4ft UV strip light and a 250W ceramic heater. I soon realised that they would probably do much better in an “open topped” style enclosure and set about building one out of wood. This was a very simple construction, 6ft x 4ft with sides approx. 10 inches high. It allowed for good circulation of air and therefore, much lower humidity levels (Leopard tortoises cannot tolerate high humidity). I initially used a substrate of hemp (Auboise), but have since changed to a 50/50 mix of clean playsand and loam based soil (John Innes No 1 is a good choice in the UK). This substrate is ideal for digging and for thermoregulation opportunities. Tortoises naturally dig to escape heat, cold and to make sure they are at a temperature that they are comfortable with. It also helps avoid dehydration problems.

I added caves, water dishes and slate areas for feeding and wearing claws down. The cave was packed out with hay, which they like to bury into, but also is a good high fibre food if they eat it. Be very careful though that the hay cannot be pulled out and end up near the heat source because of the obvious fire risks. Also ensure that if the hay becomes wet or contaminated by faeces, change it immediately so as to reduce the risks of disease and mould spores forming.

As soon as the new Active UV Heat lights became available, I added one of those and removed the ceramic heater. I use a 160W bulb which can be adjusted in height to create the correct temperatures. Try to get a daytime temperature gradient of approx. 75f (24C) at the cool end of the enclosure and 90-95f (32 - 35C) under the basking spot. You must ensure that your tortoise can get away from the basking heat levels if he wishes to. Provide lots of places for him to hide which will allow him some privacy and again, somewhere to get away from the heat and light. Leopard tortoises do drink a fair amount so always provide clean drinking/soaking water, preferably in a container that allows the tortoise to sit in the water rather than just to put his head in and drink.

As with the hay, make sure the water is changed daily for hygiene reasons. The bowl can also be scrubbed weekly using a suitable disinfectant. Terracotta plant saucers of varying sizes are ideal for this. The lights are kept on for approx. 12-14 hours a day and then turned off at night. Extra heat at night time should not be needed in the average house with central heating (for a healthy leopard) but if you do find that the temps are dropping too low at night (below 60f or 16C) then think about adding a gentle heat source. A heat pad may be used but please secure it to the back/side of the enclosure and not on the floor where the tortoise could burn itself. They do give out a very gentle heat but it is better to be safe than sorry. Another alternative is a low wattage ceramic heater.

This picture shows an open topped enclosure containing Horsfields but would be the same for baby leopards. In simple terms, they are low sided, large wooden drawer type constructions. Please don't get caught in the "petshop trap" and think that you have to spend hundreds of pounds on a purpose built enclosed vivarium which is actually better suited to the purpose of snakes and lizards.

 

This set-up works very well until your Leopard tortoise has grown and it will grow fairly quickly. Mine then progressed to a spare room during the wintertime which is set up similarly in that it has caves, a large water bowl (I use a large “garden tidy” which can be found in most garden centers), slate areas, hay bedding and a protective covering for the floor. Don’t forget that leopard tortoises do not hibernate and so they need to be kept heated and fed all through the wintertime, which in itself can be a challenge, although they will tend to slow down somewhat in the winter and feed slightly less.

 

 

 

 

OUTDOOR ACCOMMODATION

 

Please bear in mind that this section covers outside accommodation for Leopard tortoises of a substantial size. If you have hatchlings or small Leopards, the enclosure can be covered with a protective wire mesh or netting to ensure safety from predators such as birds, cats and also from inquisitive children. This is well worth doing as unfiltered sun is one of the most important things you can give your tortoise. He will not benefit from being indoors on a beautiful summer day because the enclosure is not safe and you can’t always be there to watch him.

 

Provide your tortoise with as much space as you can, ensuring that all the perimeters of the area are safe from escape or intrusion. Flimsy fencing will not stand up to the attentions of large leopards. If you are making a large enclosure rather than using the whole of your garden, 24 inch high log-roll buried partly into the ground is secure. Leopards are grazing herbivores and will graze quite happily on your lawn and any suitable weeds they find. They will also consume any suitable plants they find so you have been warned!

If you are using the whole of your garden, please take the time to find out if the plants you have there are safe to the tortoise if they are nibbled, because it is amazing how many garden plants are toxic. Another thing to be aware of are the dangers of weed killers and pesticides. Once you have secured your garden/enclosure, it is time to think about what to put in it. Large grassy areas are really enjoyed by Leopard tortoises and natural grazing will benefit them greatly. Also, a large variety of weeds, flowers and leaves are consumed which are another vital part of the diet.

Make sure that there are plenty of places for the tortoise to hide and shelter from the hot sun. Even though leopard tortoises come from Africa, it does not mean that they can tolerate sitting out in the sun with nowhere to shelter. Large terracotta/plastic plant pots and for adults, plastic dustbins cut in half are good for this as are shrubs, low growing palms, pampas grass and miniature bamboos. You can make the enclosure attractive as well as being practical.

The tortoise will need a ready supply of drinking water. I supply this by using a large plastic dog bed which allows the tortoises to get right in and soak if they wish. Another good alternative for smaller animals is the top of an old birdbath sunk slightly into the ground.

My leopards have free access to a heated greenhouse in the summertime which allows them to bask even on cool days. I have a 300W and a 160W Active UV Light suspended from wooden benching and these are used extensively. For night-time heating, I use both a 6ft tubular heater which is wired into a thermostat, with the probe at the coldest part of the greenhouse, and an electric fan heater, again on a thermostat. Hiding places and water are provided inside the greenhouse.


For baby Testudo Graeca ibera, I use a seed propagator top with a doorway cut into it which provides something like a mini-greenhouse, providing shelter from rain and for early morning basking and this would work just as well with baby Leopard tortoises.

 

 

 

 

DIET

 

People have a tendency to feed Leopard tortoises a high proportion of “wet kitchen foods” but there really is no need for this, especially in the spring, summer and autumn when fresh natural food is plentiful. Digestion of these “wet kitchen foods” takes only 4-6 days whereas natural, high fibre food takes approx. 20-25 days which allows optimum nutrition extraction. Feeding this kitchen food also encourages loose, poorly-formed stools when in actual fact their stools should be very firm and fibrous. Leopard tortoises are grazing animals and therefore at least 70% of their diet should be different grasses. The other 30% is made up of weeds, plants and flowers.

Never feed a Leopard fruit, it can culminate in diarrhoea, encourage parasite problems and raises lactic acid levels in the gut. Even when Leopards are being kept indoors in the colder months, grass is always available and should be used. When fresh food is hard to find during the coldest winter months, I occasionally use romaine hearts, endives, watercress, radicchio and other such leafy greens but always try to add some sort of natural food such as edible weeds, grass or plant leaves that make it through the wintertime.

Every feed is supplemented with calcium carbonate and Vitasaur or Nutrobal is used 1-2 times per week. There are many sources of calcium carbonate available. Small jars are available from pet shops/reptile stores. Cuttlebone is also a good source and this can be scraped onto the food and also left lying around the enclosures in whole form. Personally, I use calcium carbonate in the form of Limestone Flour and it works well. It sticks to the food well and the tortoises don’t mind it at all.

 

 

 

 

BASIC HEALTH CARE

 

I do not intend to talk about disease or illness because at the first sign of a problem, you should take your tortoise to a vet, preferably one who has experience with tortoises/reptiles.  If you need to locate a recommended tortoise vet, please visit "Vets for Herps" which is a database of specialist vets personally recommended by tortoise keepers throughout the world.  You will need to join the list (which generates no mail) and then you can access the files section which holds all the details classified by Country/County/Town. 


There are a number of things that you can watch for and do at home that will keep your tortoise happy and healthy and therefore cut down your need to visit a vet.

Thoroughly inspect your tortoise weekly which will allow you to pick up on any changes that are occurring. Check that his eyes are clear, mouth is clean and pink, his nose is dry and clean, he has no cuts or abrasions on his skin and that his shell is not damaged at all. Also check for signs of abnormal swellings especially around the ears and that no nasty odours are present. This can indicate a problem and should be investigated further.

I find it helpful to weigh my tortoises at least once a month, which alerts me to any sudden or drastic weight changes which could indicate a possible problem. Another problem that captive tortoises sometimes suffer from is an overgrown beak and claws. If the tortoise is provided with the correct terrains/environments and natural grazing then it shouldn’t be a problem but if it does occur, it is possible to gently file the beak down with a strong emery board and clip the nails very carefully with dog nail clippers. Be careful not to clip the nails too much and cause them to bleed. If you are not completely confident about doing this, ask your vet to show you how.

If you do suspect a problem with your tortoise, please take it to a suitable vet as soon as possible. Tortoises are slow to show signs of ill health sometimes and therefore, by the time you see the problem, it can have been there for a while and needs to be sorted out without delay.