Sanbona Wildlife Reserve – TortoiseThe Afrikaans name for this little creature ‘donderweerskilpad’ (thundery weather tortoise) is one of several others of the same theme: onweerskilpad, reenskilpad, swaarweerskilpad. The allusion in each case is to a belief in the Karoo, the sole habitat of the species, that this secretive tortoise is usually seen only shortly before a thunderstorm when it emerges from its shelter and briskly takes a walk in the open veld (bush). It is welcomed as a forecaster of rain.

The Karoo padloper is one of five diminutive tortoises belonging to the genus Homopus, four of which are virtually restricted to the Cape Province. Despite the generic name, derived from Greek and indicating that there are the same number of claws (four) on all four feet, the Karoo species has the more normal tortoise complement of five claws on the front feet and four on the rear ones. It feeds on succulent Karoo plants and their flowers, and as it forages, moves relatively rapidly over the ground.

The tortoise’s carapace is flattened and not high-domed, which equips it well to wedge itself under rocks for protection as well as to make progress over stony terrain without overbalancing and ‘turning turtle’, though if it is unlucky enough to do just this, it manages to get back on all fours.

The species is seldom found far from some rocky outcrop where it will seek shelter beneath an overhang rather than in a bush. Its enemies include predatory birds such as crows, which easily crush the relatively soft carapace. The female deposits one to three eggs in a hole which she then covers over with soil. Incubation may take from five to seven months.

By Marco Fitchet
Senior Ranger
Sanbona Wildlife Reserve