Tortoises of Namibia

Namibia is purported to have some of the most beautiful postage stamps in the world. But what’s more fascinating are the stories behind the artful images they depict—plant and animal life, traditional cultures, history and landmark events. Many people are unfamiliar with Namibia—until they visit on our motorcycle safaris and fall in love with it.

This month we take pay homage to two famous reptiles—Tortoises of Namibia.

Tortoises play a crucial role in the biodiversity of Namibia and South Africa. These ancient beings are adaptable, resilient, and know how to pace themselves—attributes that have helped them survive since prehistoric times. The largest ones are found where food is plentiful and they’ve had enough time to grow. Of 40 species worldwide, seven are found in Namibia.

tortoises of namibiaTortoises have no ears but sense vibrations that help them navigate. A keen sense of smell helps locate food. A toothless but hard, sharp, beak-shaped mouth enables them to bite and rip at food. Water, obtained primarily through feasting on succulents, is stored in large anal sacs that take up most of the abdominal cavity. When threatened, a preferred defense mechanism is to evacuate their bowels, including this water on their ‘prey’—i.e. whoever’s trying to pick them up or move them.

Visualize a tortoise and the image that most likely comes to mind is the African Leopard Tortoise. Attractive and distinctive markings, large size, and distribution across a large area in eastern and southern Africa make this reptile easily recognizable.

The leopard tortoise thrives anywhere from mountains to coastal regions but prefers semi-arid thorny to grassland habitats. It copes equally well with temperature extremes, and arid or humid conditions.

The San have valued them as a special culinary treat, then using their shells for collecting berries and roots.

Leopard tortoises are very prolific, with females laying 2-3 clutches of golf-ball sized eggs in good years, using their hind legs to dig a nesting hole 30-35 cm deep before covering it over for camouflage. Incubation takes from 80-120 days, an adaptive characteristic designed to time hatching with the rains.

stamp nama padloper - anja denker 2010 smallAnother tortoise, the Nama padloper, is the only one endemic to Namibia. It prefers a secluded lifestyle, living in dry rocky landscapes between the Fish River Canyon and Aus in the west. Like others in its species, the Nama padloper has evolved a high degree of adaptability to survive in the irregular habitat and extreme aridity. When environmental demands become too much, they hunker deep down in cavities and rock crevices, emerging only after significant rainfalls. Because they are usually correlated with thunderstorms, these plodders are also known as ‘thunderstorm tortoises’.

Suitable weather conditions and the appearance of greenery and flowers to feast on mean it’s time for procreation and they become quite aggressive. Tortoises are not particularly doting parents though. Males go their way after mating and once the eggs are laid and the nest covered, females leave the progeny to hatch on their own.

The biggest threat to their survival is man. Loss of habitat plays a role, but even more important is their appeal on menus.

Source: Stamps and Stories, Vol. 1, 50 Stories on Namibia’s Postal Stamps, Gondwana Collection Namibia, & NamPost, 2012.