Leopard Tortoise – Master of Survival

Few tortoise species are as well-known as the African leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis, former scientific name: Geochelone pardalis). The reasons for being so easily recognised are their attractive markings, appealing size (in some areas females may reach up to 70 cm!) and their distribution throughout Africa.
Leopard tortoise. Photo: Alfred Schleicher

Leopard tortoise. Photo: Alfred Schleicher

Leopard tortoises are found in an area stretching from southern Sudan and parts of Somalia across Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa and all over southern Africa. This versatile species occurs in Mozambique and South Africa as well as Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia, in the arid regions of Namibia as much as in the rain forests of Angola, no matter whether annual rainfall is just 100 mm or well above 2,000 mm.

The leopard tortoise favours semi-arid thorny to grassland habitats but seems to thrive anywhere from coastal to mountainous landscapes. It is able to cope with heat as well as extreme cold, aridity as well as humidity. Tortoises in the Mountain Zebra National Park near Cradock in South Africa are known to dwell in the abandoned holes of small predators during the cold winter months. Likewise, in the arid scenery around the Tiras Mountains in southern Namibia, they shelter in similar holes to survive the heat and extended periods of drought. There, however, the occurrence of leopard tortoises is no doubt proportionately much smaller than it is in the vast savannah of Serengeti National Park in East Africa, for example.

Leopard tortoises are herbivores which graze on grasses like lawnmowers. They also favour various fruits, succulents and thistles and even eat the dung of other herbivores. The key to success seems to be versatility combined with resilience.

Adaptability is also reflected in the reptiles’ size within different tortoise populations. The largest ones are found in areas where food is plentiful and, perhaps, where the reptiles have enough time to grow. In many African cultures large leopard tortoises are seen as a food source. For the San (Bushmen) in the Kalahari this tortoise used to be a special treat and the empty shells were treasured as containers for collecting berries and roots. But the numbers of tortoises always remained stable, even though baby tortoises have many natural enemies to contend with – hornbills, eagles, hawks and secretary birds. Bush fires are another threat.

Geochelone pardalis (Leopard tortoise), issued in 1982, artist: Arthur Howard Barrett

Geochelone pardalis (Leopard tortoise), issued in 1982, artist: Arthur Howard Barrett

Leopard tortoises are very prolific. In years with generous rainfalls females lay up to three clutches of up to 12 (sometimes 20) eggs each, even in Namibia. Eggs are the size of a ping-pong ball. Females, as in all tortoise species, use the strong nails of their hind legs to dig a nesting hole of 30 to 35 cm deep. They moisten it by emptying their anal bladder and then, sliding down the hind leg, one egg after the other is dropped to its place in the hole. After the last one the nesting site is carefully covered up again and smoothed over with the plastron to make it less conspicuous.

Incubation time differs from 80 to 120 days in areas which are humid and always warm, to more than one year in mainly arid regions – like Namibia, for example. This is another form of amazing adaptability: if the rains stay away the hatchlings would find no grass and starve. It does in fact happen that fully developed baby tortoises hatch but stay in their nesting hole in a state of ‘drought hibernation’, waiting for the proverbial better times. After sufficient rain has fallen they will finally make their appearance. In typical tortoise manner the baby ‘leopards’ are immediately able to look after themselves without restriction and have all four little feet firmly planted on the ground.

In some parts of their original habitats leopard tortoises have nevertheless become rare. The reason will most certainly be the impact of the most destructive of all living creatures, modern man. Because even the most adaptable species are unable to cope with fast changes in their habitat. Perhaps we, as humans, should take a leaf out of that book.

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Mbalantu – The eembuvi-plaits of the Women

The Mbalantu live in the extreme northern parts of the Omusati Region and part of their tribal area extends into southern Angola. As they take a rather insignificant position among the OshiWambo-speaking groups, they were neither frequented by early traders during the nineteenth century nor did they participate in the agreements, which were signed between the German Government and various OvaWambo chiefs in 1908. Mission stations were also only founded much later, which contributed towards the Mbalantu having retained some of their traditions, e.g. the skills to make handsome pottery and the rather spectacular headdresses of their women, for a much longer period of time than some of the other tribes. At the age of approximately twelve years, Mbalantu girls started preparing their hair for later headdresses. As among the Ngandjera and Kwaluudhi, the Mbalantu girls also covered their hair with a thick layer of finely ground tree bark of the omutyuula tree (Acacia reficiens), which was mixed with oil. The mixture was applied to improve hair growth. A few years later the thick fat-mixture was loosened so that the hair became visible. Subsequently, fruit pips of the bird plum were attached to the hair ends with the aid of sinew strings.

Mbalantu, issued in 1997, artist: Mary Jane Volkmann

Mbalantu, issued in 1997, artist: Mary Jane Volkmann

If a girl had reached the age of sixteen years, the headdress consisting of fruit pips was discarded and instead long sinew strands, which often reached the ground, were attached to the hair. According to reports dating to the early 1900s, some 80 strings of sinew were sometimes used.

Just before the girls could enter the ohango initiation ceremony, the long sinew strands were converted into two or four thick plaits, which were known as eembuvi. They were hanging down on the sides of the head and at the back. Sometimes small ornaments, which were adorned with white porcelain beads, were attached above the forehead at the base of the plaits. If one considers that the plaits remained part of the head of the girls for day and night, one can imagine the extreme exertion the young girls had to go through during the initiation ceremony, which was just about to commence.

The eembuvi-plaits of Mbalantu women. Photo: CHL Hahn, Collection Antje Otto

The eembuvi-plaits of Mbalantu women. Photo: CHL Hahn, Collection Antje Otto

If the girls had managed to proceed through the initiation ceremony, they were called “brides” (ovafuko). At this stage another thick layer of ground tree bark and fat was applied onto the head. Various ornaments made from beads were attached on top. Finally, the long plaits were taken up and arranged in a specific manner along the sides of the head and at the back, where they were attached. According to historical reports this headdress was a “mighty coiffure” and its weight was of such nature, that the upper ends thereof were often attached to a piece of rope or skin, which was fastened around the forehead in order to distribute the weight more evenly. The front edge of the coiffure, which was known as omhatela, was often decorated with a band of large, white beads (omawe gomupolo). At the back just below the omhatela a leather strip decorated with cowrie-shells was also sometimes attached. The young girls were now regarded as married. The omhatela-coiffure was often worn long years after marriage

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Our African Penguin – On the List of endangered Species

It’s surprising to think of penguins in the African heat rather than in colder climes, but the African penguinis endemic to the southern tip of Africa. An unusual flightless bird, ungainly on land, it is an agile master of the water world as it careens swiftly through the water powered by its webbed feet and small flipper-like ‘wings’.Because of its loud braying call, it was once referred to as the Jackass penguin. The tough 60-70 cm bird has an attractive black-and-white colouring that serves as camouflage; the white underbelly to disguise it from underwater predators below and the black back from predators above. Its disguise has not protected it, however, from its greatest competitor – man, and African penguin numbers have plummeted over the last century to a fraction of what they were. In 1956/57 the total population was estimated at 141 000 breeding pairs, a number which had decreased by 60% in 2009 to just over 25 000. The Namibian population comprised approximately 5 000 pairs in 2008/9 and the South African, 21 000.Historically, the decline in penguin numbers has been attributed to the harvesting of penguin eggs and the collection of guano. Without the guano layer, penguins are unable to dig their burrows, which protect them from predators and provide cover from the hot African sun.

Jackass Penguin, issued in 1997, artist: David Thorpe

Jackass Penguin, issued in 1997, artist: David Thorpe

The African penguin is now facing an even more severe crisis – food scarcity, being unable to compete with the commercial fisheries. Many penguin mortalities have also resulted from oil spills. Natural predators include seals and sharks in the ocean and the mongoose, gull and genet on land. The dramatic decline in numbers led to the African penguin being reclassified on the IUCN’s Red List in 2010 from Vulnerable to Endangered.The distribution of the African penguin Spheniscus demersuscoincides with the area influenced by the nutrient rich waters of the Benguela Current that runs up the coast of Africa and the availability of off-shore nesting sites. (Some mainland sites have been colonised in recent years. This has been attributed to an eastward shift of pelagic fish.) Its breeding range extends from Hollamsbird Island, off central Namibia, to Bird Island in Algoa Bay in the Eastern Cape. In Namibia, Halifax Island, Mercury, Ichaboe and Possession islands account for approximately 96% of the Namibian penguin population. Sardines and anchovies, the penguins preferred diet, were overfished in the 1960s/70s making it difficult for penguins on islands like Halifax to find food. The guano layer covering the island was also removed for fertiliser during this period.Several distinctive behaviours are evident in the penguin colonies during the year, most noticeably the annual moult, where penguins fatten-up for weeks before their 20-day starvation period when they are unable to enter the ocean, and the breeding season. In Namibia most penguins moult in April and May, and in South Africa from November to January.

African penguin. Photo: Gondwana Collection

African penguin. Photo: Gondwana Collection

There are also regional differences of breeding season, with the peak of the breeding season occurring in Namibia in November and December and in South Africa from March to May. The African penguin is monogamous, the breeding pair sharing the 40-day incubation and feeding duties. About 60 days after hatching, the chicks’ down has already been replaced by blue-grey waterproof plumage, and from 60 to 130 days the ‘baby-blues’ are ready to leave their natal colony. They will return after 12 to 22 months, after journeys of up to 1 900 km, to moult into adult plumage.There are ‘happy feet’ and success stories these days as more protection is being granted to the species, nesting boxes supplied and organisations like SANCCOB (South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) rehabilitating abandoned chicks and oiled birds. Over a hundred birds from Lüderitz were transported to Cape Town in a rescue mission in 2009 where the oiled penguins spent 4 weeks rehabilitating before their release and long swim back to Namibian waters. After 18 days, the first of the group were seen arriving home.
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