African sulcata tortoise

The African Sulcata Tortoise or geochelone sulcata (also known as the African spurred tortoise or African spur-thighed tortoise) is a large tortoise native to the Sahel area at the southern fringe of the Sahara desert. It is the biggest tortoise in the world after the Galapagos tortoise and the Aldabra. The adults are two to two-and-a-half feet (60-75cm) long and weigh 100-200lb (45-91kg), with the record being 231lb (105kg). Right away we see two reasons why they are not an easy pet to keep: they are adapted to very hot conditions which may be challenging to replicate, and they are huge, strong and require a lot of room.

It is not known exactly how long they can live, with some sources claiming they can live to 150 years. Ages over 50 are commonly reported in captivity.

 

Diet

Unlike the tropical tortoises, which are omnivores, and the Mediterranean tortoises, which eat mainly vegetables, the African sulcata tortoise is mainly a grazing animal. In the wild, about 75% of its diet consists of grass. Guess what you should feed it in captivity? That’s right – lots of grass! The best thing is to just let them graze in a garden, rather than having to feed them, but this is not always possible, especially during cold weather.

The base of the African sulcata tortoise’s food pyramid is grass and hay. The pyramid is finished off with cactus pads (prickly pear pads are increasingly available in supermarkets), flowers like rose petals, leaves like hibiscus, mulberry and grape, and weeds like dandelions and clover.

As with Mediterranean tortoises, the African sulcata tortoise should never be fed meat, but may be seen eating bug and worms. This is nothing to worry about, as the quantity of meat it gets this way is not enough to cause problems.

There is some controversy over whether vegetables (like lettuce, kale, spinach etc.) can be fed to an African sulcata tortoise. My own position on the matter is about 90% against them. I think that the occasional feeding of vegetables will not cause a problem, but when they make up any significant part of the diet, diarrhea and other digestive problems seem to be more common. Compared to the grass-based diet the African sulcata tortoise is built to eat, vegetables are much lower in fiber and pack nutrients in a more concentrated form.

Fruit should never be fed to an African sulcata tortoise, as it contains too much sugar and not enough fiber. Feeding your tortoises fruit is likely to disrupt the digestive system and lead to diarrhea and other digestive problems.

The African sulcata tortoise is a huge tortoise with a huge shell, so it needs huge amounts of calcium. This species seems to take particularly well to cuttlebone. I advise always leaving cuttlebone in your tortoise’s habitat. Spreading powdered calcium supplements on their food once or twice a week is also a good idea.

But by far the easiest trap to fall into is overfeeding. Remember that tortoises are cold-blooded, slow-moving animals and don’t require nearly as much energy as a mammal of similar size would. You do not need to feed your African sulcata tortoise every day; four or five times a week is plenty, especially if it is grazing in between. At each meal, give it the amount of food it can consume in 20 or 30 minutes.

 

Habitat

Being from the Sahara, these animals don’t like the cold. If their environment falls below 16°C (61°F) at any time, you are inviting problems. Aim for a daytime temperature of 23° to 29°C (75° to 85°F). Going too far above this range is also problematic, but most keepers find they have the most trouble with excess cold.

Being such a big tortoise, they naturally need lots of space. For all practical purposes, it is impossible to keep an African sulcata tortoise indoors all the time. They need indoor space of at least 8 feet by 8 feet (2.4m by 2.4m), as well as an outdoor pen and an outdoor shelter.

A tortoise table is obviously not practical in this case. You must provide a room, or a partitioned area within a room, to serve as the tortoise’s habitat. What if you don’t have the space to do this? Then don’t get an African sulcata tortoise! This area should be equipped with UV lights as described in my article on tortoise housing. The best substrate for African sulcata tortoises, everyone agrees, is grass hay. They nibble on this for snacks.

Outdoors, it is good to have both a shelter and an area for them to roam free and graze. A small garden shed, of the sort you can buy in any garden center, is suitable. This should be heated with a big heat mat, which you can get in any reptile supply store. The interior of the shed should be kept at 26-32°C (80-90°F). Remember that these are big strong animals and are liable to break down anything that is too flimsy. You may want to reinforce the walls of the barn and will certainly want to insulate it. I have been toying with the idea of creating earth berms around a barn for a sulcata shed, but have not yet had the chance to put this into practise. I believe this would provide a stable temperature as well as greatly strengthening the structure. If you try this out, be sure to let me know how it goes.

African sulcata tortoises are big fans of soaking. In their indoor habitat, provide a shallow tray of water big enough for them to sit into. The article on tortoise housing describes how to build these. As with all tortoise species, the hatchlings are particularly prone to dehydration, so place them manually in the water tray for 15 minutes every day.

This species does not hibernate.

 

Breeding

The mating season of the African sulcata tortoise is from September to November. The males will fight for mating rights, often quite violently.

Mating is accompanies by an unusual squeaking sound. If mating is successful, the female will seek out a place to lay her eggs about 60 days later. Females are very fussy about where they lay their eggs, and she may spend days picking a site.

Clutches usually contain 15-30 eggs. You can dig the eggs up and incubate them at 30° to 31°C (86° to 88°F) for 90 to 120 days.

 

Diseases and parasites

Runny nose syndrome is probably the most common health problem seen in African sulcata tortoises. It can be treated effectively by medication your vet will prescribe. Intestinal parasites are also common, and are also quite easily dealt with by the proper prescription medication.