Meet Usain Bolt, the tortoise

Trundling up a fence-line in one of my fields earlier this year I spotted a boulder. Nothing unusual there, because we use boulders to block off the bottoms of our fences so that small dogs (ours) can’t squeeze under and disappear.
What caught my eye, therefore, was not the boulder itself, but the fact that it was moving.
By the time I’d returned to the house, and called my better half to have a look with me, the boulder had moved. Disappeared.
So imagine our joy when, the following day when walking in our fields some distance from my first sighting, we came across the boulder again, crossing the path slowly in front of us. Say hullo to Bolt (as in Usain, geddit?) the tortoise.
An indigenous Leopard tortoise, Bolt was of some size, and therefore of some vintage. From whence he came we’ll never know, and how he (or she, we’ll never know either) managed to broach our fences we’ll also never know. Nor where he was headed, although it seemed he wanted to go north.
Because I was about to start cutting grass in my fields with my slasher we deemed it sensible to move Bolt out of harm’s way and we thus removed him to a disused chicken run, now well grown with lush kikuyu.
Here, after he had come out of his shell, he chumbled around the fence line chewing grass, concentrating particularly on the northern border. “Go north, young man,” was clearly not only David Livingston’s call. It’s built into the tortoise’s DNA, too.
What does one do with a tortoise? Not a lot, it seems.
For every time we boasted to friends or family that we’d found a tortoise they’d want to see it, and out we would all troop to the chicken run. There to see nothing more than a tortoise-shaped boulder because the vibration of our feet would clearly cause him to retreat into his shell.
If that’s the default response to human/tortoise interaction it’s not very exciting. One can’t after all, pet a boulder, unlike a puppy or a pony.
Plus, having lived on this plot for more than 30 years, we’ve only ever seen a tortoise once before. Shortly after we moved to the plot a gardener unearthed a hibernating tortoise while preparing a flower bed. Sadly, he unearthed the tortoise with a the business end of a garden fork. End of tortoise. Since that day our plot has been devoid of tortoises big and small, and it has never been a tortoise thoroughfare.
Besides, I hold the view that the place for wild animals, reptiles, insects and birds is in the wild, not cooped up in a cage.
I have, for example, never understood some people’s obsession with keeping snakes and lizards in large fish tanks. Why? To prove how brave they are around snakes or reptiles? It makes no sense to me. You can’t after all, hug a snake, because if it’s a poisonous one it will more than likely reward you with a bite or a gob of venom in your eye, and if it’s a python or a boa constrictor, it will quite likely hug you back.
And even snakes ~ and tortoises ~ must become lonely without company.
So it was decided that Bolt should be moved on, northwards, because that seemed to be where he was headed.
Now fortunately the Rietvlei Nature Reserve outside Pretoria is, roughly, north of our plot, although not within walking distance for a tortoise, even one as determined and fast-moving (yeah, right) as Bolt.
And also fortunately, the wardens at Rietvlei are happy to accept healthy indigenous wild animals, reptiles etc because they, too, believe that wild animals belong in the wild.
What’s more, if one presents them with an alien or exotic animal such as a tortoise (which may have wandered into one’s property or been bought from a dealer), they know what to do to house it ethically and safely, but not in their reserve.
There is, of course, a thriving roadside and underground trade in all manner of fauna and flora, particularly tortoises, which are plundered from the wild to fuel the trade, and many people support these dealers because they feel sorry for the creatures.
Truth is, however, that by buying from an unethical roadside dealer all one is doing is encouraging them to plunder further.
And, there are regulations and permit requirements to keeping wild animals, tortoises included, at home.
And so Bolt was delivered to Rietvlei, given a once-over for evidence of good health and released into the reserve, there to find a mate, reproduce and, hopefully, live his days like a tortoise should.

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