During a recent set up at the waterhole and while waiting for guests to arrive, Schalk decided to give everyone present a lesson on how to catch a marsh terrapin – a skill that requires a lot of patience.
When in water, marsh terrapins usually pop their heads out of the water – either to look for a potential meal or just to take a breath. As you walk around the edge of the water, you will see their small heads breaking the surface. Carefully choose your position, and stay still for the next 10min or so. Throw small sticks or stones to break the surface of the water, but not too far away from where you are positioned. Marsh terrapins are omnivores and eat anything from ticks on a wallowing buffalo to ducklings, birds and water plants.
Once you’ve captured their attention, they will come closer to investigate. At this point you should be on your knees while keeping a close watch on the terrapins, as they will soon be within your reach. If you have marula fruit you can use the skin as bait. They will start feeding right under your nose. This time when one goes under the surface, you want to stretch your hand out and push it down onto the bottom, then grab and pick it up.
Take care to avoid the head, as they do give quite a nasty bite. Marsh terrapins are not venomous, but do secrete a urine-like scent from the musk glands (located on the ventral surface) as a defense mechanism. The urine-like smell can linger on for days if it gets on your hand.
Once you have one in your hands, you will immediately are able to see the webbed feet and the algae and moss that grows on the back. You’ll also notice that they pull their head into the shell sideways, unlike tortoises that pull the head in straight back. They will not die out of the water but put them back as soon as you can – a few feet from the water is fine as you can then watch them rush back into the water.
Next time you visit Camp Jabulani, remember to ask Schalk to show you how he caught a marsh terrapin… just for verification purposes.