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For tortoise, terrapin and turtle care and conservation


Fiona McGrattan


The majority of my experience in keeping tortoises has been with the 'common' species, Testudo graeca and Testudo hermanni. I acquired my first specimens at the age of four . and have maintained an avid interest in herpetology, especially chelonia ever since. Like most people, for years, the only kinds of tortoise I thought existed were the unfortunate creatures displayed seasonally in pet shops, and the giant tortoises exhibited in some zoos, However, after reading Ivor and Audrey Noel-Humes' "Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles", I was struck by the diversity of these reptiles, and developed a particular interest in the African Hinge-back tortoises, Kinixys erosa, Kinixys belliana and Kinixys homeana. When I was fourteen, my parents obtained for me a Bell's Hinged tortoise K. belliana, and, although dlue to my ignorance. it ultimately died, this type has remained my main interest since then.


By January 1981 , having had several years experience in maintaining T. graeca and T. hermanni in captivity, I began to consider keeping tropical species again. This takes a considerable amount of planning. The animal's welfare should always come before the collector's desire to own certain species for prestigious reasons, without a thought to the conservation aspect. Many tropical chelonians are threatened in their natural environment and for this reason, prospective captive breeding should be a major motive for obtaining them. The most commonly imported species seem to be the South American Red and Yellow Footed tortoises, (Geochelone carbonaria/denticulata) and the Leopard Tortoise (Geochelone pardalis) . I spent four months contacting various dealers who have tropical tortoises in stock. Like the Mediterranean species. they come into this country seasonally. from April to September. Eventually, I obtained the address of an establishment which was awaiting the arrival of some Bell's Hinged tortoises within a few days. Having mentioned this. 1 feel I should warn of the hazards involved in buying stock from dealers. One can only speculate how their reptiles have been caught and imported, so it is not surprising that much of it is in a weak or diseased condition when it reaches its destination . Personal experience has taught me to be wary of this method of obtaining stock, but if it has to be resorted to, the prospective buyer should, at least, be prepared to travel to the importer's retailing outlet and examine the conditions and animals at first hand. I would discourage buying Chelonia and having them delivered by rail as this is likely to cause further stress. Strong, healthy Chelonians are essential for captive breeding so it is important to take a considerable amount of care in obtaining specimens.

Physical Characteristics.

The first BeII's Hinged Tortoises I obtained were both adult males. Each measured 7" long, from the tip of the nuchal shield, to the rim of the supracaudal. They were light in weight, one was 1lb 2ozs, the other 11b. The carapace was long and narrow, having a low elevation , about 3" from ground level. The colouration was quite striking, with areolae sandy yellow, and surrounded by a band of black, broken by occasional flecks of yellow, suggesting a radiating pattern. The plastron was an overall sand colour with circular radiating markings of yellow, black and brown. The head was greyish brown, with yellow along the jaws. The long, thin legs were also greyish brown, and the fore-limbs covered with small projecting tubercles. As the plastron in both male and female is flat, the best indication for sexing are the tails, In the male hinged tortoise, the tail is about 2" long, thick at the base, and tapering to a point at the end. Female K. belliana have shorter, stubby tails, also finely pointed. The 'hinge' is situated between the seventh and eighth marginals, which have a thin band of connective tissue between them . This alIows the back end of the carapace to be lowered, enclosing the back Iegs and tail as a protection against predators. The head and fore-limbs can also withdraw a considerable distance inside the front of the shell. One account I read of the experience of one herpetologist in Africa, who told of the invasion of his house, in East Africa, by an army of the driver ant, Dorylus nigricans. Crocodiles, lizards and captive rats were consumed, but the BeII's Hinged tortoises were practically immune, since their heavily tubercled fore-legs withdrawn deep into the front of the shell prevented the ants from attacking the soft flesh of the neck! The third specimen I acquired was an adult female K. belliana. She weighed 1lb 5oz, and was larger than the males, her length being 8" and her girth much broader than that of the males. It would appear that female K. belliana are consistently larger and heavier than the males, in common with many other species of Chelonia. W. H. Archer , who observed tortoises in South Africa for many years, found the average female to be 7-8 " long and 2lbs 10oz in weight. The average male was 6-7" long and 1lb 11oz in weight.

The female in my collection has an overall sandy yellow carapace, with light brown aerolae in the middle of each shield, surrounded by a ring of darker brown. The plastron is almost entirely yellow, marked with some small brown patches. The carapace shields are anomalous, with ten, rather than eight costals, and seven rather than five vertebrals. If mating occured and she laid eggs, it would be interesting whether this irregularity was inherited by the young. The female's colouring indicate that she hails from a different area of Africa than the males, both of which came from the West African Cameroons.

Two recent acquisitions (December 1981) were a juvenile male, 5" long, and female 3" long, Both have similar colouration as that described for the adults, but considerably brighter, and the marginal shields, especially at the rear, have strongly scalloped edges.


The two adult males were, at first, housed in a large glass vivarium, 3" (1) x 2 " (w) x 18" (h) , but this proved to be unsuitable. It was difficult to heat correctly, and three sides had to be covered by polystyrene tiles to allow the tortoises to feed without constant disturbance. The weight, and vulnerable nature of glass limited the area available for the occupants, so it was discarded in favour of a more suitable material. The present vivarium measures 5' (L) x 2' (w) x 2' (h) and was made from 5/8" chipboard covered with a thin layer of white melamine . I am still experimenting to discover if this material is a viable proposition , but if it ultimately reacts adversely to the high temperature and humidity required for the tortoises, another alternative is 1/2 " plywood. However , the melamine covered board is advantageous in that it is waterproof, although as a precaution, I have coated the interior joins with aquarist sealant. The vivarium, which resembles a large rectangular box, was screwed together, and raised off the floor boards on 1 " thick polystyrene tiles. These absorb any irregularities in the floorboards, when set against the downward pressure of the vivarium structure. The 'lid' is constructed out of two wooden frames, each 2' 7" X 2', The wood used for these is 3" high and 3/4" wide, so the frames rest on the rim of the vivarium securely. One frame is covered by 1/4" glass, stuck to by sealant , and there is 1/2 " gap along one side , between glass and frame to allow for ventilation , and for an external thermostat to be clipped, horizontally, on top of the glass. The second frame is covered with half glass, half 3/8" plywood, into which numerous holes have been drilled to facilitate ventilation. The plywood is detachable to allow food and water to be placed inside the vivarium. Either frame can be totally lifted off the vivarium rim, so the vivarium is easily cleaned, or left open on hot summer days for air to circulate freely. The glass allows the vivarium to be lit, partly by natural light, and for the tortoises to be observed without disturbance as they are being looked down upon . As it is kept in an upstairs room , the vivarium receives some sunlight in Spring and Summer, as it is under a slanting window which is set in the roof. Consequently, this room becomes very hot on warm days, so at certain times of the year, heating costs for the vivarium are reduced. Heating is provided by a 3' tubular electric heater attached half-way up one of the long interior sides. This is attached to an external thermostat which measures the temperature from outside the vivarium, through the glass on one frame. It is set at 85°F, although I have found the tortoises seem most at ease as long as the air temperature is around 70°F,and dislike temperatures of 90°F and above , when they show signs of wanting to aestivate. Simply because an animal is described as 'tropical', it does not necessarily mean that it functions well under extremely high temperatures.

Artificial light and extra heat is provided by a tru-light bulb . This is set in the middle of a piece of slanting plywood, set across the frame, half covered by the detachable plywood , so it can be easily installed in a screw-in fixture, and is directed up the length of the vivarium interior.

In Winter, I use a 150 watt tru-light, to heIp maintain temperature together with the heater , but in Summer, this wiII be changed to a 75 watt version. AIl the wood used for the frames, etc. , was given two coats of yacht varnish, to protect it against the humidity inside the vivarium, and to prevent warping. The interior is landscaped to emulate the savanna environment from which BeII's hinged tortoises come. This entailed considerable research into African botany , climatology and geology . The first step involved in creating a suitable environment was to cover the floor area with 1 " of 'Forest bark' a mixture of leaves, twigs and peat - like material, ideal for maintaining a humid atmosphere in the vivarium, and a good base in which to establish plants and grasses. This was covered by a further mixed layer of silver sand and peat , One corner was built up so that the sand level was higher than that of the rest in the vivarium , so it formed a small plateau . Upon this was positioned a large thick log, over which hung a Canary Island Ivy trailing over it. Branches projecting downwards from the log provided ideal 'caves' for the tortoises to hide in. Into this setting were placed logs, stones, dead leaves and plants. I have tried to establish some African plants into this setting , succulents such as Andromiscus, sedum, Agave, Aloe, Crassula, African violets and foliage plants like Asparagus fern. I also want to obtain seed from African grasses, Euphorbia species, acacia, and the tubers of plants which grow and flower during the rainy season. Not only will these add an authenticity to the environment, they will give protection to the tortoises and perhaps a food source. Bell's Hinged tortoises generally dislike intense sunlight and in the wild spend much of their time hiding in undergrowth during the daytime, in common with other savanna inhabiting animals. They aestivate during the dry season , emerging to feed , drink and mate when the rains come. In captivity they spend hours sitting in water and drinking copiously. For at least one month each year, I shall withdraw their water supply, so that they follow as natural an existence as possible and spend some time dormant.


Having described their environment in captivity, I want to discuss feeding, and general vivarium maintenance. Food is provided in a shallow stainless steel dish sunk into the sand. It consists of soft fruits, such as pineapple, melon, strawberries, banana, orange, tomato, lettuce, cabbage, dandelion, sprouts and cooked cabbage, Once every few weeks, a pinch of vitamin powder is put on the food. As their food in the wild is probably low in nutrients, overfeeding in captivity can be a definite reality. Some authorities consider that captive tortoises with deformed shells are a result of overfeeding. The Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust , whose breeding successes include Geochelone radiata and G. carbonaria, feed the adult specimens twice a week in Winter, one feed of root vegatables, and one of fruit. In Summer they graze naturally in a large paddock.

Unfortunately, as the habits of K. belliana in its natural habitat, along with those of many other tropical species, have not been studied in depth, aspects of husbandry such as feeding can be a problem. A mistake I made with both adult male K. belliana was to give large amounts of raw minced beef and cooked chicken , which they consumed enthusiastically. This being such an unnatural feeding regime led, directly or indirectly to the death of both tortoises, after varying periods of ill-health, indicated by apathy, refusal to eat and , ultimately , to drink. The adult female has never, in captivity , eaten meat in any form and has not deteriorated like the two males.

In the wild, this species certainly consumes some protein, in the form of millipedes, giant land snails Achatina and small insects. Both adult males ate spiders, wood-lice and garden snails, pursuing their intended victims and finishing them off with a quick snap of the jaws. As a general rule , protein is perhaps best offered in the form of locusts and meal worms, rather than via such concentrated sources as beef and chicken. These tortoises do not hibernate like the Mediterranean species, T. graeca and T hermanni, so there is no need for intense feeding during the summer months. Water is provided in a large , shallow plate sunk into the sand . It is kept warm as the tru-light bulb is angled towards it. The tortoises also appreciate being sprayed with warm water, but I shall endeavour to make this a seasonal regime , rather than a weekly one . The tortoises are most active in a humid atmosphere . Pieces of cuttlefish bone are left on the floor ,and at least one of the tortoises takes large bites out of it regularly .

Cleanliness in a vivarium environment is of paramount importance. Any excrement, or urine is removed each evening together with the patch of sand on which it was deposited. Soiled sand is replaced with fresh , so the level does not go dlown . Ventilation is also a necessity not to be overlooked . Hygiene is vital when keeping tropical chelonia in confined circumstances. This consideration, together with the method of cleaning out the vivarium, should, ideally, be worked out during the initial design plans for the tortoises's accommodation. This should reflect, primarily , the needs of the animal , but also the needs of the person looking after it.


This is probably one of the most interesting aspects of keeping tropical species. When put outdoors with my seven T. graeca and three T. hermanni, the adult male hinged tortoises displayed some interesting behaviour traits. They were extremely aggressive. If another chelonian, large or small, knocked, or tried to climb over one of them, the hinged tortoise would retaliate by pushing against it, head withdrawn, until the opponent was turned on its back, Or scurried off! They also pursued other tortoises with a view to mating. Having long , narrow legs, they hurry after an intended victim, and if it stood still, the hinged tortoise would wait for it to move again.

Mating, among this species consists of chasing and occasional leg, or head biting until the male, uttering frenzied squeaks, mounts the carapace of its mate. My adult males had attempted to mate with male and female T. hermanni and T. graeca , size being no object. They were also fascinated by anything that moved, e.g. insects. At the beginning of this section , I mentioned that the hinged tortoises were put outside , together with my Mediterranean specimens. Having discussed this with others who keep tropical species, I found that the concensus of opinion was to be wary of putting these reptiles outdoors, even on a warm day . Apart from the risk of cross infection from other species, the English climate, even on a warm day is likely to be unnatural to them . Consequently , they ought not to be left outdoors for long periods of time. But, to present the other point of view, I see no harm in putting some species out of doors occasionally in Summer, for the benefit of the sunlight and fresh air , as long as they have been well established in a vivarium environment and are healthy reptiles. Newly purchased stock might , perhaps, be better off if it were not put outside , before its health and appetite were first assured over a period of some months. The Leopard Tortoise G. pardalis does, however , in habit parts of Africa from which T. graeca hails, and might perhaps tolerate the English Summer better than other imported species, although I would not advise that any tropical tortoise be left outside overnight in case the drop in temperature prove injurous to health . The two juvenile K. belliana in my collection are currently extremely wary , the female particularly . The male has begun to develop some of the aggresive traits of its adult counterparts, although I doubt it is sexually mature yet. My next priority is to obtain an adult male as a mate for the adult female I described earlier in this article. I should also like to obtain a male and female Schweigger's Hinged Tortoise Kinixys erosa , the jungle dwelling species, with the aim of studying the differences between the two kinds. Sadly, many interesting species such as the Kinixys genus, have been poorly documented, and consequently there is still much we have to learn about their habits.


I hope that this article will stimulate the interest of Chelonia enthusiasts concerning tropical species. Many are threatened in their natural habitats, and the concern and action of herpetologists and conservationists is vital to their survival in the wild. But, with the disappearance of many of their habitats. through man's wholesale destruction of forest and savanna, it is also vital that captive breeding is encouraged, and the sharing of information relevant to the husbandry of tropical species promoted . This is also necessary for the survival of the much exploited T. graeca and T. hermanni.

I am indebted to Larry Kragh for his help and advice about K. belliana, also to Rob Harper, and to the individuals in this country and abroad who have aided and encouraged me in my desire to maintain hinged tortoises in captivity .

Testudo Volume 2 Number 1 1983