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!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The importance of DEEP shade

Ok, folks, we need to talk about SHADE.

You have probably (hopefully) heard tortoise keepers talking about the fact that tortoises need "DEEP SHADE" to retreat into on a hot Summer day (really any day that has air temps above 80 degrees).

What do we mean by "deep shade?" - this is NOT slapping a board across the tortoise enclosure, nor does a little house do the trick. To create DEEP shade, you have to use the *AND* principal. So, for example, deep shade would be under a tree, AND inside a burrow. Or under an umbrella (or shade cloth) AND under a dense bush. Under a dense bush AND inside a deep burrow. Only there can a significantly cooler environment be achieved that our tortoises need to be comfortable on a hot day.

Not convinced? If you have a temp gun, I would love it if you would go outside, and measure the ground temperature in a nice shady spot, and then in the sun. There can be a temperature difference of 60 degrees! (e.g. the deep shade under our tree is a nice balmy 80 degrees... the dappled shade under a bush is 90, and the flat rocks in the tortoise enclosure measured 140 degrees F before I hosed them down! In comparison, in the burrow that is behind the dense bush, covered in 10 inches of soil, and has been dug out pretty deep by the tortoises, it is 65-70 degrees. Guess where the tortoises are? Except for the 2 crazy ones who are out first thing in the morning, and don't seem to mind the sun (they are also the lightest colored ones), they are all in the burrows right now.

While we are talking about shade and sun - PLEASE do NOT soak your tortoise in the sunshine when it is warm outside - at least not without supervision! Just this year, I have heard of 2 tortoises that died during their soaks, simply because the owner placed the soaking dish in the sun, and then walked away for 30 minutes. A tortoise in a soaking bin has no place to go. If it is overheating, it can't hide, and sitting in 1 inch of cool water certainly won't protect the top of its shell.

Please be sure to provide DEEP shade for your tortoise when it is outside - that's TWO kinds of shade nested inside each other, as explained above. If your tortoise constantly hides during outdoor time, chances are that you might not be providing enough shade in the enclosure. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Outdoor tortoise enclosure Version 2.0!!!

Our outdoor tortoise enclosure expansion is finally ready to be shown off to you! I started the expansion project last August, and then had to take a break during the cold, wet winter months. As soon as it was warm and dry enough to work outside, I was out there! Before showing you the work-in-progress, I thought I'd first show you the finished product: 

Tadaaa! Outdoor tortoise enclosure expansion!
The above picture shows the large portion of the enclosure in the shade - I took the pic in the morning. That side of the house gets full afternoon and evening sun!

So, let's rewind to last August. Here is the tortoise yard Version 1.0 - not bad, actually... nice sun, nice shade, good weeds to eat... the tortoises were happy.

The 'old' enclosure... Version 1.0
However, I wanted to be able to section off the males from each other and from the females, and wanted to provide MORE room for everyone. I also wanted the enclosure to be attractive and functional. We have the space, and so I went for it.

First, I wanted to make sure that I actually did things 'right' this time - pre-planning, measuring, etc... rather than winging it as I worked. I used a free online landscaping planner to come up with the following design plan:
'The plan' 
Next, I measured, staked, and used spraypaint to mark where I needed to dig. The lines were going to be straight, darn it! Once the lines were marked, I started removing the grass. The grass wouldn't hurt the tortoises, but I needed to dig the anti-escape-trench, and Russian tortoises don't particularly like to eat grass, so it can take over.
Starting to remove the grass where the expansion will go
I had to find a good option to drain the gutters in a way that wouldn't flood the tortoise yard... we get a lot of rain in the Spring and Fall! You'll see the solution I came up with in later pics. I also had to dig up a bunch of toxic plants from the South side of what would be the tortoise yard.

To prevent the tortoises from digging out, I dug a deep trench. This was back-breaking work... I used a prospecting axe, and dug and dug and dug. When the trench was done, I installed a line of pavers/bricks, embedded deeply enough that the tortoises wouldn't tunnel out.

Got a hibiscus bush at a nursery close-out
I had to work bit by bit, digging the trench and removing the grass. This is what it looked like when that portion of the prep-work was done.

The digging and grass removal is done!
After this point, winter came, and it became too cold and wet to continue. Life also got really busy, so I had to put the expansion project on hold until this Spring. As soon as it was warm enough, I got back to work. First, my friend Lynne and I took down the structure of the old enclosure (THANK YOU!). Then we started laying the foundation for the new wooden boundaries. Unlike in Version 1.0, the Tortoise Yard 2.0 has a leveled foundation - extra work, but VERY worth it in the end. I first put landscape fabric into the trench, and then a leveled layer of gravel. Then I installed lawn edging pavers (which I got for free via a neighbor who was going to bring them to the dump) into the trench. Then we installed the 2"x10" cedar boards, using rebar to hold them upright. Cedar is harmful to reptiles. However, these boards had weathered for 1 year, and so don't pose a danger to the tortoises outdoors. You can see the work in progress in the following picture:

Lynne decided to be camera shy, so I didn't get a picture of her working... I did manage to catch our shadows on camera together though! We spent several crisp winter days working out there together.

Once the cedar board boundary walls were all installed and the rebar was hammered in and attached to the boards to hold them in place, the really hard part of the work was finished. The pre-measuring and pre-planning paid off: the boards were level, I had the right amount of lumber, and it looked nice.

Far from done, but it gives a good idea of the space
However, the work was not yet done. The tortoises could potentially climb over the 10" boundary, and the kids (and various other critters) could certainly climb/walk/jump into the tortoise enclosure. (Ps: see the drain pipe that I installed, through a hole in the board?). I started to install the railing, with hardware cloth (similar to chicken wire, but smaller holes).

Installing the railing
Installing the hardware cloth was a 2-person job. I managed to install about 15ft of it myself, using my hands, feet, and head to hold things in place. NOT efficient. Thankfully, I was able to enlist my hubby and Lynne to help me (Thank you, again!). I used little stainless screws and washers to hold the hardware cloth onto the wood - this worked MUCH better than the staples I used in Version 1.0!

If you look in the next picture, you'll see that in addition to the anti-dig-mote (filled with lawn edging pavers), I also placed 12x12 cement pavers all along the inside edge of the tortoise yard. The soil is flush with the edge of the pavers, and so tortoises will walk up and down, but won't be able to dig at the edge. With the many other digging options I've provided, I don't anticipate any escapes.

Functional, but not quite as pretty as I'd like...yet.
The vertical 2x2 posts and the hardware cloth were enough to functionally keep tortoises in and kids out, but since we will see the tortoise yard daily, I wanted to make the structure more optically pleasing. To do so, I installed a 1x2 railing, with a 1x4 railing top, complete with miter cut corners.

...working on making a proper railing...
I reused railing pieces from Version 1.0, so I had to piece them together a little bit... but in the end, it worked out nicely. To add to the anti-escape factor, I installed the railing with an inward-facing lip, just in case a tortoise happened to manage to climb up the hardware cloth.

The structure is finished!
Since my kids sometimes help me feed and water the tortoises, I even installed a little 'short person entrance' - the rest of the fence is purposefully the perfect height for me to step over without much effort.
On the far left is our leopard tortoise's pen, with the big 'juvenile tortoise' bin (converted koi pond). Then the large Russian tortoise area, with the sectioned-off areas to keep the males separate from each other and the females. We named their sections "Dukelandia" and "Rozlandia" (the males are named Duke and Roz).

At this point in late January, the weather was warm enough some days that I could even let the tortoises spend a few hours in their outdoor space.

Duke found a sunny spot to bask in
Here are a few pics of the inside of the enclosure, before plants started growing in properly. I seeded out two broadleaf seed mixes (from Carolina Pet Supply and from Tortoise Supply), and also transplanted hundreds of weeds I dug up in other people's yards (#crazytortoiseladywantsyourweeds).

Rozlandia gets the little tortoise house I built 2 years ago
 I tried to make the interior of the tortoise yard interesting to explore, with different textures such as little hills, rock piles, rocky flat areas, soil, planted areas, and logs to climb over or hide under. I placed sight barriers to help the tortoises not become too territorial towards each other. I also made a weird little log tepee, since tortoises like to bask in filtered shade.

The leopard tortoise area (below) has some grass in it, since this species does like to graze. The large black koi pond will have the juvenile Marginated tortoises in it. I will create a separate post showing more of the leopard tortoise area at a later point.

You can see part of the leopard tortoise area here.
One part of the tortoise yard expansion I am particularly pleased with is the old fire pit that I re-purposed into a baby tortoise enclosure. First, I asked my hubby to drill some drain holes into the bottom. Then I filled it with dirt, and planted a little garden inside with stones, moss, a soaking dish, and plenty of yummy weeds. The mesh cover has holes large enough to let UVB light in, while protecting the babies from predators. The adult tortoises can easily walk under the structure.
Baby tortoise enclosure! (previously: a fire pit)
It will still take a few more weeks for the weeds I planted to start growing in properly. Soon, the whole area will be lush and green! Here are a few more pictures that I took today, a few weeks after the above pictures were taken. The weather has been beautiful (65-70 degrees air temp, warmer on the ground), and the tortoises got to explore their new habitat.
Spring is here!

Some of the weeds I transplanted... 
This year I am keeping the males separate, to give the females a break. The females may still lay fertile eggs, as they can store sperm for years... but at least they will not be bothered. Here is a view of Rozlandia, with Roz climbing one of the logs I put in there for him. The fern is deer fern. The tortoises ignore it.

It was cute to see that Roz knew EXACTLY where the sun would hit first. He positioned himself just right on the log to catch the first rays!
Ready for when the sun hits Rozlandia
It is always fun to watch tortoises explore and claim their 'favorite' spot to make a wallow or burrow. Lady likes to burrow down halfway near a plant, and then lazily lies in the sun, nibbling on leaves close-be.
Lady found a good sunny spot by a fern
Duke didn't settle down in Dukelandia for a while. He spent most of the day walking around.
Duke exploring Dukelandia
Here is a view of the area the female Russian tortoises live in. It is shaded in the morning, but around 10:30am, the sun creeps in. I brought the tortoises outside when there was enough sun for them to bask in.
Do you see the tortoise who found the sun?
Mila did her best impression of being a rock. Well, a weed-eating rock... there was a blooming dandelion plant there a few minutes ago!
Why yes, that is the most comfy way to eat.
I checked on the tortoises sequentially throughout the day... and they were happily exploring and munching away. 
Mila and Timmy girl exploring
Can you believe that Mila is almost as large as Timmy now?! She is growing up! She laid a single fertile egg last year, which hatched in October.

Here is a view of the tortoise yard, as seen from balancing on one of the posts:

Can you spot the tortoise?
 ...and here is another view from ground level:
How many tortoises do you see?

I would say, the verdict is overall: Our Tortoise Yard Version 2.0 is tortoise approved!

Jill has a green mustache from eating weeds...
Was it worth the hard work? Absolutely! Guess what... instead of paying to go to the gym... you could build your tortoises an outdoor enclosure, and get a workout in the process!

Ps: The tortoise yard expansion plan includes a cold frame, which I will show in a separate post. Many of the shrubs are already in place, and I used reclaimed materials when possible. I want tortoise owners to know that it is possible to build a beautiful and functional enclosure on a budget. You may have to comb Craigslist for free materials... but in the end, it is worth it! Grand total material cost was $185, which included lumber, hardware cloth, and high quality screws. The bricks/pavers and some of the lumber was reclaimed. I could have done it for less, but chose the 'pretty' variety for some things (e.g. getting very large continuous pieces of lumber, and building a 'pretty' railing, rather than leaving things rustic).