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Nature of Israel – Tortoises and Turtles

Tortoise strolling near Tiberias
Tortoise strolling near Tiberias

I know the tortoise is a turtle. I know the turtoise is a tortle. (Ogden Nash)

Last week, while I was walking in the Switzerland Forest, near Tiberias, I had a chance encounter with a tortoise who was also out for a walk, albeit rather a slower walk. A tortoise in Israel is no more an escaped pet than a hare is an escaped pet rabbit. It’s a wild reptile and it’s actually an offence to capture one. They certainly do walk slowly – typically they travel at about 300 meters in an hour (0.3km/h), which is somewhat slower than a hare that might reach speeds of 60 to 70 kilometers per hour. So, a tortoise walking 6 days a week for 10 hours a day might take more than a year to walk the 1,000 kilometer Israel National Trail, whereas the hare could complete the route in just a couple of days. However, as Aesop would attest, the tortoise would undoubtedly win the race.

Slow though the tortoise is, it doesn’t need to rush – after all it takes its house with it, and when it characteristically retreats into its shell at the first sign of danger, to the delight and interest of every child who sees it, it is quite safe from all but the most determined predators such as raptors and foxes and snakes.

The Israeli tortoise, which is really the Greek tortoise, is one of the smaller species, weighing about a kilogram and reaching a size of only about twenty centimeters, but it can live for fifty years or more. It is minute in comparison to the giant tortoise of the Galapagos, which can weigh in at 200 kilograms. And the Galapagos version can live for one hundred and fifty or even two hundred years – a giant in every way!

All tortoises are actually turtles, but not all turtles are tortoises (as I think Ogden Nash was trying to say). Tortoises are primarily land reptiles, while turtles are well adapted to living in water. In Israel we find non-tortoise turtles too – the Caspian Turtle. A good place to see these is in the swamps of the Hula Nature Reserve. They’re similar in size and not too dissimilar in shape to the tortoise. But they are significantly quicker than tortoises, certainly in the water where they can reach amazing speeds of five to ten kilometers per hour and even on land they’re faster. They can be seen basking in the sun, watching the world go by, while drinking coffee or swamp juice.

Turtles chatting at Hula Nature Reserve

There’s another, completely different sort of turtle too, a colony of which is clearly viewable from the Turtle Bridge in the Alexander River National Park. The Softback Turtle (or the Softshell Turtle) really doesn’t look like a tortoise at all. As its name suggests it doesn’t have the hard shell protection of tortoises and other turtles, and it’s much bigger in comparison. At the River Alexander Park, which is near Netanya, they can be seen swimming lazily with apparently all time in the world, or lounging on the riverbank quite unafraid, while excited young human family members rush about for the best viewing point from the bridge and waterside path. They can reach a meter in length and weigh up to fifty kilograms making it hard for a raptor to pick up and take home for dinner. 

We are blessed to see tortoises, turtles and softback turtles in the Israeli countryside, but there they must remain. Turtoises and tortles are not pets but part of Israel’s natural wildlife. And if you do happen to meet one out for a stroll, check whether it’s a turtoise or a tourtoll!

Small brains turtles may have, but they’ve outwitted this crocodillian (photographed at Jerusalem Zoo).
Softback Turtle sprawling at River Alexander, near Netanya
Turtle basking at Hula Nature Reserve

River Alexander Park HaTzabim Bridge – Google Maps

Hula Nature Reserve – Google Maps

Switzerland Forest, Tiberias – Google Maps

About the Author
I am an Amateur Photographer living in Tiberias, having made Aliyah from Manchester, UK. When not out and about with my camera I work as a Hi Tech Consultant. This is my website https://natureofisrael.blogspot.com/
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