The Leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) is a large and attractively marked tortoise found in the savannas of eastern and southern Africa, from Sudan to the southern Cape. It is the only member of the genus Stigmochelys, but in the past it was commonly placed in Geochelone instead.
This chelonian is a grazing species of tortoise that favors semi-arid, thorny to grassland habitats, although some leopard tortoises have been found in rainier areas. In both very hot and very cold weather they may dwell in abandoned fox, jackal, or anteater holes. Leopard tortoises do not dig other than to make nests in which to lay eggs. Not surprisingly, given its propensity for grassland habitats, it grazes extensively upon mixed grasses. It also favors succulents and thistles, and (in captivity) the fruit and pads of the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.) (cactus are New World plants not native to Africa). The African Leopard Tortoise typically lives 80 to 100 years.
The leopard tortoise is the fifth largest species of tortoise in the world, with typical adults reaching 18-inch (460 mm) and weighing 40-pound (18 kg). Large examples may be 70-centimetre (28 in) long and weigh up to 120-pound (54 kg). An adult's maximum shell length can reach a 24-inch (610 mm) diameter.
There are regional reports of much larger specimens. Exceptionally the giant Ethiopian form might reach 100-centimetre (39 in). In humid forests in southern Sudan Stigmochelys pardalis may attain lengths of 45 inches.
The carapace is high and domed, sometimes with pyramid shaped scutes. Juveniles and young adults are attractively marked and the markings on each individual are unique. The skin and background colour are cream to yellow, and the carapace is marked with black blotches, spots or even dashes or stripes. However, in mature adults the markings tend to fade to a slaty, nondescript brown or grey, commonly tinged with the local dust.
Leopard tortoises are herbivorous. They are more defensive than offensive, retracting feet and head into their shell for protection. This often results in a hissing sound, probably due to the squeezing of air from the lungs as the limbs and head are retracted.
Like most tortoises, they can retract their head and feet into their shell in defense when threatened. Also like all tortoises and turtles, their mouth is a "beak". The rear legs are very trunk-like, the front legs are almost paddle shaped and "pigeon-toed" with a row of small "nails". They can move very fast on these legs, and maneuver over rocky terrain easily They can also climb and go underwater for up to 10 minutes. Younger animals have a surprising ability to climb, as their toenails provide a very secure grip on wood, concrete, and rough stone surfaces. Small Leopard Tortoises (under 6 inch length) have been observed climbing vertically up and over a 12-inch-high (300 mm) wooden board intended to be an enclosure boundary.