The pancake tortoise has an unusually thin, flat, flexible shell. While the shell bones of most other tortoises are solid, the pancake tortoise has shell bones with many openings, meaning it is lighter and more agile than other species. The carapace (top shell) is brown, covered in a variety of dark patterns and lines on each shell plate, effective camouflage in its dry habitat.
They are herbivores, feeding on a variety of plant materials, grasses and cacti.
The greatest threats facing the pancake tortoise are habitat destruction and its over-exploitation by the pet trade. This species has a very slow reproduction rate, meaning populations harvested for the wildlife trade take long periods of time to recover. Commercial development and growing human settlements diminishes the amount of suitable habitat for pancake tortoises, which already suffers from being of poor quality in many areas. Tortoises in Kenya are threatened by clearance of thorn scrub for conversion to agriculture and in Tanzania by over-grazing of goats and cattle.
The pancake tortoise is classified as critically endangered on the IUCN red list and listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).