Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Visiting Ethiopian Leopard tortoises in Ethiopia

While traveling to Ethiopia last week we took a little detour to the "Lucy Cafe" in Addis Ababa to have lunch, and to visit the beautiful Ethiopian leopard tortoises that live in the field behind the restaurant. The Amharic word for tortoise is, by the way, pronounced "Ellie"...
That's no sulcata... it's one of 3 XXL Ethiopian leopard tortoises!
The tortoises were housed in a nice large field, edged with wrought iron fencing embedded in cement. A few busts of past Ethiopian Emperors stood here and there. They had several water containers, as well as shade huts. Trees partially shaded the enclosure, and the weather was in the mid 80s that day.
You can see 2 of the 3 leopard torts here. Note the geraniums, which grow all over Addis
Nice shade huts. There were a few pumpkin rinds lying around there as well. 
Here is the 'prettiest' of the 3 leopard tortoises. The pattern was the most distinct on this one's shell, but it wasn't quite as large as the really old one. I would guess this one was still about 20"+ long though.
Grazing on grass

To one side of the outdoor enclosure, there was a big pile of dried grass and yard trimmings, including geraniums, and some other flowers. One of the tortoises was "hiding" in one side of the pile. This one was probably 25" long, possibly a little more.
This one was larger than the 'pretty' one above, but also a little pyramided
I noticed there were calla lilies in the pile - which actually are NOT safe for tortoises.
Ethiopian weather varies widely from region to region, but it should be noted that it rains extensively between August and October. During this time, the countryside greens up, the soil is very saturated and muddy, and the air is very humid and warm. This is also the season during which baby leopard tortoises hatch. Following the rainy season, the weather is hot and muggy for several months, and then transitions to hot and dry, until the next rainy season. We were in Ethiopia right after the rainy season (though this year, some regions didn't get enough rain, which is expected to cause problems for the population). Plants and flowers in Addis were blooming lushly:
Hibiscus and geranium growing next to the tortoise enclosure
Finally, here is the really large Ethiopian leopard tortoise that we saw. At first sight, it resembles a sulcata, since the shell is so worn. If you look closely though, you will see the black leopard spots. This big guy was larger than 30" in my rough estimation, and still showed signs of growing. I'd be curious to know how much this tortoise weighs.

I very naughtily reached over the fence to take a picture of my hand in relation to the scutes. Otherwise it is hard to imagine the size of this big dude:

A close-up of his ancient face.
This one was friendly - he followed me all around the edge of the enclosure
The 'poop spot' was right by the water container, apparently
I was hoping to see some tortoises in the wild as well, but there was no opportunity to look for them. I did take note of the tortoise safe plants I recognized in the fields and ditches as we drove:
-mallow (both the low growing kind, and the taller marsh mallow)
-stinging nettle
-grasses (many different kinds)
-plantain weed (giant broadleaf plantain, as well as the narrow leafed variety)
-geranium (grows so profusely, it forms 6ft tall hedges!)
-white vetch
-collard greens (both wild and cultivated)
-kale (both wild and cultivated)
-hedge mustard
-thistle (some varieties I recognize, plus some XXL varieties I hadn't seen before)
-evening primrose (LOTS of it in the fields)
-sugar cane
-sedum (both the small low growing kinds, and the taller varieties
-hibiscus (many different kinds)
-aloe (the small kind as well as the kind that resembles the century plant in CA - some were huge, may have been agave)
-opuntia and other paddle-style cacti
-yucca (some were 30ft tall)
There were many other low bushes and plants we saw goats eating that are probably also tortoise safe, but I didn't know their names.
Amharic sign telling people who visit the tortoises to stay off the grass
It was so fun for me to see these Ethiopian leopards, for one because they don't (officially) exist anywhere else in the world (I hear rumors of a breeding program in Switzerland). It was amazing to see just how big this subspecies gets, and I've heard of even larger ones.

One thing that was a little sad to me was seeing 'cow bells' in the marketplace in Addis that had crudely been made out of tortoise shells by cracking them open, drilling a hole, and hanging a piece of bone inside. Here's a pic I took with the vendor's permission. I'd be interested to find out what the other species are that are in this pile.

This picture makes me sad... crude bells made out of tortoise shells.
I know that it is not uncommon for tortoises to be collected and eaten, so it does make sense that the shell would also be used for a purpose. I just hope that not too many are killed.
Close-up of one of the bells made from a juvenile leopard tortoise
(For the record, I only LOOKED at those tortoise shell bells, I didn't not buy any - would have been illegal to take out of the country, and also, would have supported something I don't agree with).

The 'pretty' leo decided to come investigate what this ferengi was up to
What a beautiful country Ethiopia is... we have fallen in love, and surely will return as often as we can in years to come! If you happen to be there, be sure to have lunch at the Lucy Cafe so you can also visit the tortoises that live behind it!

1 comment:

  1. Those tortoises are giant! Wonderful creatures, I am in awe. As for the bells, they are sad to look at because we love our torts so much, but if they are a part of the locals' diet... I get the same feeling when I see people eating manta rays and whale sharks. As long as their populations are surviving it should be ok but then many of these are protected and endangered species... It is a confusing subjct, but I am glad you did not buy any of those bells:)


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