As one of the largest tortoises in the world, the sulcata tortoise is a unique pet to have but one that can be found in thousands of homes across the globe. As well as being big, Sulcata tortoises are also long-lived and can easily outlive their owners. So it’s vital that we understand their needs to ensure that they can enjoy long and healthy lives.
Much of what we know about caring for tortoises is by observing them in their natural habitat, so let’s see what we can discover.
Commonly referred to as the sulcata tortoise (Centrochelys sulcata), the African spur-thighed tortoise, or the African spurred tortoise. Their scientific name was once Geochelone sulcata but was was changed to Centrochelys based on DNA testing.
Sulcata tortoises will often live beyond 70 years old and can easily reach 100 years of age in captivity.
These tortoises are one of the largest species of tortoise in the world and can weigh upto 100kg and measure over 85cm in length! The sandy golden colour of the sulcata tortoise’s shell is perfect for camouflaging into the desert sand; the African spurred tortoise has a light brown shell and yellow-brown skin that does not vary much in tone. However, if you look closely, you can see the growth rings on the scutes where they grow slowly and steadily – they won’t be fully grown until they are 15-20 years of age.
They have conical shaped spurs on the backs of their thighs, hence their name. They also have large claws on their front and rear legs to help them dig.
Sulcata tortoises live in sub-Saharan Africa where they can be found from Senegal through to Eritrea, including Mauritania, Chad, and Ethiopia. Their habitats are dry and they will have very little access to water, if any, for several months of the year.
Their light-coloured shells and skin enable them to survive in temperatures that can reach upto 50 degrees Celsius.
Due to the high temperatures they experience in the desert, African spurred tortoises (Centrochelys sulcata) will dig extensive burrows to escape the heat. These burrows can be up to 10-feet deep to avoid the blistering heat, however will also be used if it gets too cool, too.
Another way to combat the soaring temperatures is by using their legs to flick mud onto their shells and will salivate on their arms to help them cool down.
As with most desert tortoises, the sulcata tortoises are most active at dawn and dusk and will bask in the morning and then stay in their burrows until the evening when you can find them foraging for food.
They are very active tortoises and, even as young tortoises, they are known to bang into things and each other.
Sulcata tortoises are vegetarians and their diet consists of cactus pads, grasses, flowers, and any leaves that they can find in their often barren habitat.
Breeding can take place any time between June and March however it is most common between September and November, after the rains. Males will mate with several females in one season, making them known as polygynous breeders. Male sulcata tortoises become very aggressive during mating season and will bite and ram their competitors, trying to flip them upside down. They are very vocal during these times and can be heard grunting and squeaking.
When the time comes to lay eggs, the female will dig several nests and then lay her eggs in the one that she decides is most suitable. Clutch sizes range from 15-30 eggs and the female will cover them up and leave them to hatch alone after 90-180 days of incubation.
The IUCN red list has labelled them as endangered with their population decreasing. Although there have been efforts to reintroduce them back in to the wild, many of the juvenile animals are taken for the pet trade, therefore the wild population is not able to mature and breed, meaning that local populations are likely to go extinct.
Due to global warming, the process of desertification leaves the African spurred tortoise with less and less habitat each year. Their habitat is further degraded by human interference such as agricultural expansion and the overgrazing of livestock.
What’s more, the few sulcata tortoises that are left are hunted for their meat and eggs, or removed from the wild to be sold within the international pet trade.
Keeping a Sulcata Tortoise as a Pet
Sulcata tortoises are one of the most commonly kept species of shelled reptiles in the world, and can be found as pets in thousands of homes across the United States and Europe. With such a long lifespan and growing to such a huge size, it is important that they are given everything that they need to be able to thrive.
Growing to 80cm in length when fully grown, although it takes several years, you need to be able to dedicate a fair amount of space if you want to own a sulcata tortoise. Many sulcata tortoise owners will allow them to roam the entire garden or will give them a whole room of the house.
When they are babies, a tortoise table or basic outdoor enclosure should be more than sufficient however as they grow they will require much more space. As a minimum, we recommend 3m x 3m for adult sulcatas but the more space you can give, the better. If you live in a mild climate and you choose to keep your tortoises in an outdoor enclosure, although sulcata tortoises are known to be quite adaptable, we would suggest providing them with an indoor habitat, too, of a sufficient size for them to move around in.
Due to their burrowing behaviour, the enclosure perimeter must be buried at least 2-feet into the ground. Although they will likely still burrow, this will discourage them from burrowing out of their enclosure and into trouble!
You will also want the walls to be tall enough that they cannot climb over them which is around 2-feet in height, also. Of course, if you have juvenile tortoises then this won’t need to be as high but it will make it easier if you don’t have to increase the height as they grow. The African spurred tortoise is incredibly strong so make sure that the walls are sturdy otherwise they may be able to knock them down with time.
As we mentioned earlier, sulcata tortoises can be housed in an outdoor enclosure if you live in a warmer climate, however be prepared to move them indoors if it gets too cold, or provide them with supplementary heat lamps.
Due to their natural desert habitat, the sulcata tortoise prefers dry substrate that will not retain moisture. You should also provide them with a sufficient depth of substrate to be able to burrow and cover themselves if they get too hot. As they grow larger, if they are housed indoors, then you may not be able to give them enough substrate to fulfil this behaviour however if you maintain their temperature gradient and provide them with a cool den then they may not want to burrow as much. With this in mind, if they try to burrow and there is not sufficient depth, then it could very well damage your floors.
From a climate with such intense sunlight, the sulcata tortoise requires plenty of UVB light to remain healthy. To avoid illnesses such as metabolic bone disease, provide your tortoise with a UVB lamp with a reflector so as not to waste any UV rays and give your tortoise all the light it needs. As with all reptiles, the UVB light enables the sulcata tortoise to metabolise vitamin D3 which, in turn, helps them synthesise calcium. Calcium is what is needed for them to grow healthy bones and a healthy shell.
If your tortoise remains outside all year round, then the unfiltered sunlight is usually enough however there is no harm in providing supplementary UV light for winter days when the sunlight hours are fewer, or if it is particularly overcast.
Sulcata tortoises, similar to most reptiles, require heat to be able to move around, digest food, and perform any of their normal daily functions. If they are housed indoors, central heating is not enough for their needs so you will need to provide basking lamps for them to heat up to their desired temperature. The temperature under the basking lamp should be around 35-40 degrees Celsius.
Even in an outdoor enclosure, unless you live in a warmer climate where temperatures remain between 25-30 degrees Celsius throughout the day, you should provide them with an indoor space such as a greenhouse or a heated shed where you can maintain their required temperature range. If the temperature at night drops below 15C then consider moving them inside to make sure they don’t get sick.
Inside or outside, basking lamps should be left on for at least 10-12 hours a day and the temperature should be monitored to make sure that it doesn’t drop too low, even at night.
We recommend purchasing a hygrometer to monitor the humidity of your sulcata tortoise enclosure. They should be kept at a humidity level of around 40-55% as anything too high can contribute to fungal infections and shell rot. Hatchlings and young sulcatas can be kept at the higher end of this humidity range with gentle misting.
Provide lots of hides and shelters for them to hide in as an alternative to burrowing, if you cannot provide the substrate. Make sure you give them lots of cool places away from the sources of heat if they should need it. Similar to other tortoises, the sulcata tortoise loves to explore so provide them with lots of logs, rocks, and plants for them to interact with and to encourage exploratory behaviours.
If you provide plants in an indoor enclosure, or your sulcata tortoise is permanently kept outdoors, always do your research on which plants are toxic to sulcata tortoises and which are safe for them to eat. Even if a plant is safe, you should monitor how much your tortoise eats so you can ensure that they are getting a nutritionally balanced diet.
Provide your sulcata tortoises with a shallow water bowl for them to bathe and drink as they please. Although they can go for weeks without drinking water in the wild, fresh water should be provided on a daily basis.
As they grow so large, you may struggle to find a suitable water dish for them, so don’t be scared to get creative and see what you can find in local hardware or garden stores.
They also get incredibly heavy so putting them into your bathtub twice a week for a soak may not be an option.
These tortoises do not hibernate therefore it is even more important for a constant temperature to be maintained within their enclosure.
The sulcata tortoise has a broad range of foods that they can enjoy to meet all of their nutritional needs. Some food you can feed your shelled pet:
- Dandelion leaves
- Timothy hay
- Carrot tops
In captivity, their diet should consist of mostly leafy greens, grasses, and hay, with any extras as purely supplemental feeds just a few times a week. You can also purchase a specially formulated tortoise diet that comes in pellets that can be fed as a supplement or on its own.
As we mentioned earlier in regards to the amount of UVB light they receive, sulcatas must have a balanced diet with plenty of vitamin D3 to help them maintain their calcium levels for healthy growth. Additional vitamin supplements can be added to your tortoise food however we recommend chatting to your specialist vet before doing this.
These giant shelled pets are prone to shell rot and fungal infections if kept in the wrong conditions – keep the humidity at the right level and clear out any damp substrate on a regular basis and this should be easily avoidable.
We also mentioned metabolic bone disease which can be prevented if you provide plenty of UVB light whether it be through natural, direct sunlight, or by providing additional UV lamps.
As males can get quite aggressive during breeding season, check your individuals over for wounds that could be caused by biting or shoving with their shells; they are very strong and can cause damage! Additionally, competitive males will try and flip over other tortoises in their enclosure, especially when it comes to fighting over females, so be sure to strategically place rocks around the enclosure so that your tortoises can turn themselves the right way up, if they need to. This is especially important under the basking lamp where they can easily become dehydrated if they are stuck, exposed, there for too long.
These tortoises have been likened to have a pet dog thanks to their curious and docile nature. They are quite active and will follow you around their enclosure as you clean and will often bond with their owners, unlike other species of tortoises.
Sulcatas do not like to be handled and, as they grow larger and heavier, this will be near impossible to do anyway! If you ever need to handle a fully grown sulcata tortoise, you should guide them using pressure and spatial awareness. If you ever need to lift one, never lift them too far from the ground and keep them horizontal at all times.
Buying a Sulcata Tortoise
It is legal to own a sulcata tortoise in most countries however, in the UK and in Europe you require a special certificate and proof that the tortoise has been microchipped. This is to help manage the illegal pet trade and to ensure that all tortoises are ethically bred.
Due to their long lifespan, they often outlive their owners, therefore there are many sulcata tortoises that are left without a home after their owners pass away or are unable to care for them any more. Look into adopting or rehoming a sulcata tortoise if you are thinking of having one as a pet!
Sulcatas are large, heavy reptiles that can easily live to 100 years old if given the right care. Although sulcata tortoise care is not very different to that of other species of tortoise, their specific heat and lighting needs are vital in healthy growth and functioning. When paired with a nutritional diet and ample space to explore, sulcatas tend to make great pets for the whole family to enjoy for generations.