Cape Point Peninsula Tortoises

Cape Point Peninsula Angulate Tortoise
An Angulate Tortoise

The weather is changing into autumn here on the Cape Point Peninsula, something that always seems to surprise us Capetonians. A decidedly chilly South Easter meant that our usually Saturday morning trip to Fish Hoek beach was replaced by a walk up the bridal track around Black Hill (above Glencairn- click this link for a guide to this walk).

This is one of my favourite walks on the Cape Point Peninsula, especially with a three year old in tow; although it has plenty of ups and downs, and spectacular mountain vistas, the paths have a gentle slope and are well marked.

By far the biggest draw for this walk however is that it is by far the most likely place on the Cape Point Peninsula (outside the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve anyway) that you are going to see wildlife of some type or another.

This isn’t always the case in many areas of the Cape Point Peninsula; in fact, some walks feel somewhat desolate for critters. There are always plenty of colourful and noisy birds around, but a lot of the larger wildlife is nocturnal, making it very difficult to believe it is there, other than by the increasing amount of road kill and any footprints that don’t have ‘Nike’ in the middle of them.

For some reason the area above Glencairn is a very lucky place for me to see the Cape Point Peninsula’s wildlife. I was once lucky enough to see the resident troupe of Baboons frolicking at the Lewis Gay Dam (a sight that would make even the most ardent anti-baboon activist rethink there beliefs), and snake and mongoose are also around there.

However, by far the most abundant and obvious resident of the area are the Cape Point Peninsula’s two endemic species of Tortoises.

The tortoise population was hit hard in the series of fires that ripped through the area above Glencairn a few years ago. I went up there the week after the fires and was very saddened by the number of burnt out carapaces littered around the place. It is a natural process (even though the fires in this case were thought to be arson) but it still isn’t a very pleasant thought to think of the poor animals unable to get out of the way in time. Before the fires the tortoises seemed to be like boulders, you couldn’t take two steps it seemed without tripping up over one; and that was just the ones on the paths. So you have to think that this was nature’s way of culling the population.

After the fires the numbers seemed to be a lot less, certainly it was a lot rarer to spot one, even after the vegetation had started to grow back. Now it seems that either they have returned to the area or the numbers are starting to increase, because on our trip we saw plenty of them, though they were all the smaller species that lives on the Cape Point Peninsula.

There are two species of tortoise that live on the Cape Point Peninsula and they can both be seen above Glencairn.

Cape Point Peninsula’s largest tortoise

The larger of the species is the Leopard Tortoise, and the least likely to be seen. It is an introduced species, originating from eastern parts of South Africa it is capable of growing as large as 72cm, though I have never seen anything in this area over 25cm. There name suggests a beautiful shell full of distinct spots, which isn’t the case. They have a dull, sandy brown and olive mottled shell the main feature of which is that it is very domed and rounded at the base. Adult tortoises only have one natural predator- fire.

Cape Point Peninsula’s smaller tortoise

Cape Point Angulate Tortoise
An Angulate Tortoise- note the 'angular' skirt at the base of the shell

You are much more likely to see the other species on the Cape Point Peninsula in the area above Glencairn. The Angulate Tortoise is much smaller than the Leopard Tortoise, having a maximum size of 20cm, though you are more likely to see them between 10-15cm. There is also a much smaller sub species called the Parrotbeaked tortoise (8cm), though I lack the field craft to tell whether what I am looking at is anything other than a small Angulate.

The Angulate is a much more interesting tortoise to look at. Unlike the leopard tortoise it has a much flatter profile to its shell, presumably making it better adapted to the coarse, bushy fynbos. Also, the shell forms what looks like a skirt at the base (the leopard is distinctly rounded in the belly). The shell is very distinctive when out in the open (though they are still tough to see in the bushes), with each segment having a thick olive border surrounding a central sandy brown square(ish). The ‘skirt’ has a pattern of alternating sandy-brown and olive triangles. Male Angulates have a horn-like projection on their lower shells, just below the throat, which they use in combat to try and overpower their rivals (a slow motion WWE presumably, and it must be quite a sight to see). The Angulate used to be endemic to the whole of the Cape Town area; however, increased urban sprawl has seen much of its habitat destroyed, especially on the Cape Flats, where they have all but disappeared.

Cape Point Peninsula Tortoises Under Threat

Although the tortoises of the Cape Point Peninsula only have one natural predator to worry about (fire) they still are in danger from the planets apex killer-Homo sapiens sapiens.

As previously mentioned, the spread of our cities has greatly reduced the natural habitats of the Cape Point Peninsula’s tortoise populations. However, they do seem to be doing quite well in the areas that are left to them.

More worrying is a recent development around the East Asian traditional medicine nonsense. Not content with decimating Africa’s rhino populations so that they can get better erections it now seems that some part of the tortoise is considered to be worth ‘harvesting’. There have been several reported incidents of tortoise poaching on the Cape Point Peninsula, a seriously worrying development. It seems unlikely that we will see the same level of armed protection afforded to the areas tortoise population as is being put in place to attempt to save the rhino. And with the tortoise being so easy a target (a rhino is a dangerous animal, can’t see a tortoise trampling a poacher to death) it will be seen as an easy way for impoverished locals to make some money.

Whilst the area does have an anti poaching infrastructure it is aimed at other species in more imminent danger of extinction, such as the abalone (also East Asia). What we do have in this area, that the rhino protection doesn’t, is its proximity to large urban areas. It is one of the very things that is threatening the population that could save it. Urban areas adjacent to natural habitats mean lots more eyes and ears to detect potential poaching activities. Cell phone reception in these areas makes it very easy to report suspicious activity to the authorities, and we should take advantage of this modern technology if we want to stop this before it becomes a major problem.

Cape Point Tortoises a potential target for poachers
Report suspected poaching to the authorities immediately

I advise anyone who walks in the mountains of the Cape Point Peninsula to carry a cell phone with them that has all the emergency numbers programmed into it. Apart from reporting anything suspicious it might also save your life one day. I know that carry anything valuable is seen as a risk, but seriously, you can get a fully functioning phone from PEP for under R100, and it comes with a starter sim, so you can even have a separate number, and leave your fancy iRaspberry at home, along with pointless phone calls that can wait an hour while you relax, distress, enjoy the beautiful nature of the Cape Point Peninsula and maybe be a better, less angry individual when you drive to work the next day! Oh, and save the Cape Point Peninsula’s tortoise population into the bargain. Of course you can also take your fancy phone along and take some great pictures, which you can send to me and I can put on the website.

2 thoughts on “Cape Point Peninsula Tortoises

  1. sharon scherzer says:

    glad to find your web site just when i was beginning to wonder about the general attitude on the cape peninsula re wild fires and the fate of its wild life. last weekend i finally brought myself to visit or try to visit the western part of the park which seems to be devoid of any form of wild life . Of course there were the remains of burned tortise, so many i stopped counting. Perhaps you have some interest or information on the fate of the mountain tortise which gets to be quite large and which i have photographed in that area that seems totally devoid of life, the west coast road. my question which until now no one out there or in the area can answer is…..how can the capepoint be an animal reserve if they.the non-indigenous and indigenous animals have no place to go when the beneficial fires and less planned ones run rampage through their habitat.
    Any info you have on this subject would interest me very much.
    regards, Sharon Scherzer concerned frequent cape point visitor.

    1. Russell Hepworth says:

      Hi Sharon

      I also gave a lot of thought to this one while the fires were burning- my thoughts were around what the fires did before there was someone to put them out, or unnatural fire breaks to slow them down. Presumably they just burned until either they ran out of fuel or it rained. But then I also considered that the only natural source of ignition would be lightening, which would generally come with its own rain, so would natural wild fires be so out of control? It is certainly a given fact that fires are part of the natural cycle of the fynbos, some plants cannot seed without them, but there is no doubt that our impact upon the ecosystem will cause problems for the wild life. Pushed into isolated areas with nowhere to run and nowhere to recolonize from.
      However, when it comes to the western cape tortoise, they are a resilient and successful animal. Before the devastating fires above Glencairn a few years ago there were so many tortoises that you tripped over them like boulders. There seems to be few, if any, natural predators and they don’t seem to be slow at breeding. Going up there after the fire was harrowing, carapaces everywhere, but they bounced back, and I get the feeling that the fire is their predator, keeping numbers in check.
      Also, don’t underestimate the ability of the capes animals to travel through the urban sprawl. We lay in our houses at night oblivious to what is going on outside in the dark. I live in Fish Hoek, and shy animals such as porcupines are regular visitors to the most central of areas- I regularly see quills in the most obscure of places, and, unfortunately, there is regular evidence from road kills.
      I also imagine that if all the animals survived the fires and then moved back into the burnt areas there would be little to eat, and they would therefore turn to the small shoots of new plants. This would have a devastating effect on the recovery of the fynbos, and ultimately lead to the suffering and death of just as many animals in the long run.
      Of course this is only my opinion, and I am far from an expert in the subject. I will therefore endevour to get a response from cape nature, San Parks or any other stake holder that I have not annoyed in the past.

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