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How to Breed Your Leopard Tortoise

Jana worked in animal welfare with abused and unwanted pets. She loves sharing her hands-on experience regarding domestic and wild critters.

A healthy hatchling leopard tortoise.

A healthy hatchling leopard tortoise.

Leopard Tortoise Breeding Takes a While

Tortoises like slow; however, leopard tortoises take slow to the next level when they decide to extend the family. Be prepared to wait over a year for tiny tortoise faces, that is, if you get eggs in the first place.

For a lover of the species who decides to breed them for the first time, it can be discouraging to learn that they won't breed or hatch as easily as anticipated. This article will frame the basics in detail, which is a good place to start for anyone who wants walk into this project armed and knowledgeable.

What We Will Discuss

  • Reasons for breeding
  • The breeding pair
  • The mating game
  • Pregnancy and nesting
  • Incubation and hatching
  • Caring for hatchlings

Breed for the Right Reasons

A lot of reptiles are bred for the pet market. Always remember that it's a saturated market. There are commercial breeders for nearly every species of reptile, the leopard tortoise included. Does the world really need another breeder?

Sure, leopard tortoises remain popular due to their docile nature and large size, but you won't get rich selling them. On the flip side, if one breeds for non-financial reasons, homes still need to be allocated for each offspring. Realistically, you cannot keep the entire clutch. A female can deposit over 20 eggs and produce several clutches a season. The time involved in the successful breeding of the species is not worth it for the private entrepreneur.

The babies that will hatch are living creatures and deserve a good life. Any breeder should act responsibly and make sure beforehand that they have prospective owners who won't get rid of them. Unfortunately, many leopard tortoises are abandoned at shelters or in the wild, with the mistaken belief that they will be able to fend for themselves. Some might survive, but most will perish from malnutrition, thirst, getting hit by cars, electric fences or taken by wildfires and predators.

Finally, before you set up your breeding pair and equipment, touch base with your local laws. In some places, stiff fines and regulations restrict breeders' hopes. Elsewhere, you only need to apply for a special license. In their native South Africa, unauthorized keeping, breeding, and selling of leopard tortoises not only means confiscation and fines, but you may actually face time in jail.

A male follows his chosen female.

A male follows his chosen female.

Finding a Suitable Pair for Mating

Your breeding pair needs to be in top condition as well as stress and disease-free. The age of maturity is not fully established, but for captive males, this could be around six years of age (some mature later). Most tortoises become sexually active a year or two before they become fertile. They'll mate but produce no eggs. Males prefer females who are larger than themselves, which also suits the girls. Many reproductive problems can be avoided when the female is bigger, hydrated, and has laid eggs before. If you aren't sure of the gender of your pets, you can use this practical guide to determine the gender of your tortoise.

The Mating Game

The leopard tortoise is known as a docile animal, but come Valentine's Day (May to October), both sexes fend off rivals, and the males pursue the apple of their eye. He will follow his chosen female and shell-bump her as long as it takes until she accepts his advances. A close watch is needed to prevent shell damage during this “courtship” stage. The male then mounts the female. Interestingly, during mating, you're likely to experience the only time when leopard tortoises get vocal. Usually mute, the male can get quite noisy.

The female uses her back legs to dig the nest.

The female uses her back legs to dig the nest.

Pregnancy and Nesting

Needless to say, tortoises show no outer signs of being pregnant. Their shells can't expand to show the presence of eggs, but an X-ray can. A couple of months after mating, a gravid female might change her behavior. She will start pacing, often patrolling the borders of her enclosure. Every day, ensure that she has plenty of fresh water to drink. Dehydration is one reason eggs develop lumpy shells, which result in egg binding. The latter is a condition deadly enough to warrant veterinary intervention.

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Before you breed, provide adequate nesting options for the female to choose from. They prefer sandy or earthy places, often where there is a lot of sun. Eventually, she'll pick a spot and dig a hole with her back legs. At this point, she must not be disturbed. If there are other tortoises in the enclosure, remove them without distracting the mother. The digging can take a while, but in the end, she will lay perfectly round eggs, numbering between 5 to 30. The larger the female, the more eggs she can drop. After she's done, the tortoise fills in the hole and uses her belly to flatten the earth to erase the presence of the nest. Then she'll amble off, no longer interested. Sometimes, more clutches follow (up to seven, about three weeks apart).

Where to Hatch the Eggs

You have two choices: leave the eggs in the ground or place them in an incubator. Either way, be prepared for failure or a long wait. Leopard eggs are notoriously hard to hatch. If you decide to let nature take its course, mark the nest and after the minimum amount of incubation time, place a barrier around it to contain any hatchlings.

If you prefer to use an incubator, carefully dig up the eggs once the female has left. Place them on a tray with a dry substrate. Use the substrate to anchor them slightly but don't bury the eggs. Aim for 28–31 °C and include a bowl of water to maintain a 70 percent humidity level. Expect to stare at the nest/incubator for 5 to 18 months before the little ones arrive.

Things to Remember During Hatching

When you notice the moment has finally arrived, it can be very exciting but also nerve-wracking. The main thing to remember is that they are born with egg yolks. These need to be reabsorbed before the babies can be considered safe. Some stay in the egg until re-absorption is complete (one reason not to “help” them hatch), others crawl out, sacs and all. Here, you need to lend a hand.

Absorption takes a few days. During that time, the greatest threats are flies and injury. Flies can deposit eggs in the yolks, which then developed into maggots, and this is usually fatal. The hatchling also risks infection if the sac is compromised.

One way to prevent self-injury is to gently restrain the animal by placing it in a cup. Line the bottom with a moist paper towel. This will prevent the yolk from drying out. Don't worry about starvation—the yolk is very nutritious. Once absorbed, move the tortoise to a plastic container without substrate, preferably with a lightly moistened paper towel on the surface.

A Quick Poll

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

Question: Can you use tortoises for medical purposes?

Answer: Absolutely not. This is a very old belief that harms a delicate species and brings humans no medicinal benefits whatsoever. Always remember that there are easier alternatives for health issues that anyone can get from a doctor or pharmacy. With enough research, there's a lot of safe home remedies for lesser ailments. Tortoises are a protected species. Killing them for medicine could land the person in serious legal trouble.

Question: I have two leopard tortoises. Both are 2 1/2 years old and just recently noticed one is mounting the other. Does this behavior mean that I may have a male and a female tortoise?

Answer: That's certainly a possibility. However, two and a half years is a bit young for them to start breeding. It could also be a dominance display or scuffling. A good way to check the gender is to look at the shape of the shell near their tails. Gently turn each one over and look at the part closest to the tail. Here's a hub that explains how to spot the girls and boys.

Question: What makes Leopard Tortoises so difficult to hatch? Mine just laid her second clutch of eggs and nothing ever hatches.

Answer: If she's making her nest outside, it could be the weather. When it rains heavily, the eggs could "drown." Sometimes, the ground becomes too hard and that's also a problem. Remember that tortoise eggs can take a long time to hatch, especially leopards. Some nests remain dormant until the environmental conditions are right and only then the embryos start developing. Breeding tortoises is a difficult craft. Perhaps you can try hatching them in an incubator where the conditions will be right from the start.

© 2018 Jana Louise Smit

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