Saturday, March 6, 2010

Tortoises at the Karoo National Park

Above: another tortoise making for the shade

One of the first things you'll read about the Karoo National Park is that is that it has the highest concentration of tortoises in the world. Five species.

One of the first things we noticed when we drove into the campground at the Karoo National Park was the huge tortoises munching on the short green grass of the first few stands. They were unafraid and quite mobile, and we watched them for a while, noticing that one slightly smaller one had had its shell crushed at the top by what must have been a car.

We had pulled into an empty stand on our right, wide and green but shadeless, and in the intense heat Vince soon went to explore for a more shady site. Tents become saunas if left in the sun.

Because the campground was very full with more people arriving in the late afternoon he stayed at the new spot while I got back into the car to drive our household over. Before getting in, though, I stretched flat on the ground and looked quickly under the car, in case a tortoise had moved in under it. It seemed clear.

I got in, pulled forward slowly, turned the wheel and felt, then heard, a sickening crunch. I swore. I knew at once what it was. In a split second of panic I was not sure what to do. I pulled a little more forward, but the tortoise was still there. I had been afraid to back up over it again, but I had to, to get off. Our new neighbour across the road was waving and yelling. I swore more. I cleared the tortoise with the huge wheels of the Landcruiser and leapt out.

There it was with shell cracked and bleeding deep red, thick blood. It was the same animal whose shell had been cracked before, but this was much worse. Vince moved the car for me, as we were still over the poor thing, and I was terrified of hurting it more. Then I drove to the reception as fast as I could to get a ranger. Even now I'm crying.

At reception I told them what I'd done and they said someone would be dispatched at once.

Back at the camp I had little hope. Apart from the crushed upper part of the shell, the apron of the shell was split all the way to above the back right foot and you could see the naked hurt body inside. The neighbour's girlfriend was in their tent, crying. When I waved hello to her a day later she ignored me. I kept saying sorry. Nicky arrived and loaded the tortoise up, saying he would take him to the head ranger, Johan de Klerk. They often crept under cars, he said. I kept repeating that I'd looked underneath and not seen him. He must have been right next to the front wheel, in the shadow, so that my turning back wheel found him.

So. I squashed a very big, possibly very old tortoise. It was horrible.

Later the 'honorary rangers' that look after the campsite drove around to check on the watering of some grass, and I re-confessed. They had not been told and oddly, did not seem overly concerned, and said that that particular tortoise always headed straight for the shade of cars. They said it happens all the time. At reception the next day the same girl had no idea what had become of the tortoise.


So. To the parks staff:

PLEASE post signs in the campsite. There are signs warning about not feeding baboons, but no signs warning about the tortoises under cars. I know it seems obvious, and I know it's my fault, but there are so many, and they move faster than we think. It's the proverbial matter of time before another one is hurt or killed.

The next evening, walking in the bush near the site at sunset, I found these two. She was remarkably uninvolved. He hissed at me.

At least they are making more.
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