The leopard or mountain tortoise is easy to spot in Addo Elephant National Park. South Africa’s largest chelonian is also a good swimmer, as I witnessed first hand during my recent trip to Addo. By Romi Boom

Just as we stopped for early morning coffee in Intsomi Private Reserve in the Nyati section of Addo, I noticed a large leopard tortoise approaching the waterhole. It started drinking in long, unhurried swallows. Because it is permissible to walk in this section of the park, I approached to get an eye-level shot of the action.

That was when the tortoise started moving into the water and proceeded to swim with expert strokes to deeper water, where it hid itself under acacia driftwood. We could hardly believe our eyes – a tortoise, swimming!

I checked, and learnt that unlike most land tortoises, which tend to sink when they fall into water, the leopard tortoise actually likes to swim and can stay underwater for up to 10 minutes. Leopard tortoises swim well enough to cross rivers or lakes. They have thick legs, the ones in the front have a paddle-like shape that helps them swim. They swim rather slowly and falling into water does not stress them as they float with their heads out of the water for hours on end. Judging by the length of time they spend in the water, they need it. They also use the water as a loo.

People who keep leopard tortoises as pets are required to obtain a permit from nature conservation authorities and to qualify, they need to provide a waterhole or pool for the tortoise.

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