The peculiar pancake tortoise (Malacochersus tornieri) has been in and out of my life for much of my professional career and even before that. I always gawked at their beauty and enjoyed watching them but for one reason or another they came and went. That changed this past summer when a large group of them came to us after being rehabilitated, post importation.
In June 2020, Cris Hagen, director of animal management for the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) reached out to us about needing to place a large colony of pancake tortoises. We were eager to help and I quickly began gathering materials to build the best possible outdoor enclosure I could. With it only being June, I knew the tortoises would have several solid months under the hot south Jersey sun before having to come back inside for winter. As the story goes, this group was imported into the USA by a reptile distributor company. The intent was to breed them given their critically endangered status in nature and because that was one of the very last times they could be legally imported into the USA from their native Africa. Unfortunately the group came in compromised and needed medical attention. They were handed over to a trusted veterinarian where they could be treated, cleaned up and be ready for future placement.
The surviving animals proved to be strong and ready for a new home which is when the TSA ended up with them. After being screened for various chelonian diseases that may be fatal to animals already existing in a captive collection, they were fitted with internal microchips for identification and entered into the pancake tortoise studbook and species survival program coordinated by Andre Daneault of Disney's Animal Kingdom. We're huge Disney fans especially my wife who is The Travelorian and a Disney Travel Agent, so this made it even more exciting to be a part of than it already was. At this point I was well into building the outdoor enclosure for the group.
Using an empty existing tortoise pen I built out of pressure treated planks and landscape timbers the season before, I reinforced some things and began decorating. South Jersey has a wonderful tortoise-friendly, natural substrate mixture that features some sand so all I had to do was add in a little sand-gravel fill to it. Building it up around 8" made for a nice, easily drained, arid-like ground that offered stability and traction for the pancake tortoises. I chose plants such as lavender, zebra grass, spirea and various sedum to offer some cover and for aesthetics. Once all of that was in place I constructed rocky outcrops using Pennsylvania field stone to mimic the African "kopjes" these tortoises love to hide in.
Using large, flat pieces as "shelves" and rounder ones as supports, I was able to make a series of dark crevices the tortoises could use for refuge. Pancake tortoises are known for jamming themselves into the tightest spaces where they feel the most secure from predators. They can actually inflate themselves which makes them nearly impossible to pull out. It's what they do best and it's amazing to see. With the rocky areas all in place and the pen secure, I just needed to add a cold frame (mini greenhouse) so the animals could find warmth on cooler days. I used the same 8x2 foot cold frame I situate in just about all of my outdoor tortoise enclosures here and it really holds up nice.
In late June, 23 pancake tortoises arrived at Garden State Tortoise from the TSA and every single specimen was in great health. They were immediately placed outdoors into their new enclosure and they took to it right away. I made sure to offer them an appropriate diet from the start and this consists of hibiscus leaves and flowers, a mix of weeds picked from our property, select greens and occasional moistened Mazuri tortoise pellets. The tortoises also do not hesitate to eat the sedums growing in their enclosure. It's amazing to watch them all scurry out of their rocky hideaways to get to the food items I put out for them.
Throughout the summer the pancake tortoise group flourished and stayed very content in their outdoor oasis until late October. Around Halloween was when it was time to move them into our external tortoise building where they could be kept safe and warm for the duration of winter. Just like outdoors, they settled in nicely to their indoor unit and are thriving. I of course cannot wait to move them back outside in the spring! Plenty of photos can be seen on our instagram and facebook pages of how they are currently doing. We'd like to extend a huge thank you to Cris Hagen and the Turtle Survival Alliance for trusting us with such a special group of tortoises. If you'd like to read a more in-depth article about this, please become a member of the TSA today and receive their magazine which features the story written by myself and Cris.
Lastly, don't forget to check out this full episode I did on our YouTube channel about the entire process of building this African-esque enclosure for the pancake tortoises.