Sulcata Tortoises

Below we are re-posting some articles from the interwebs that contain lots of valuable information to consider if you are entertaining the idea of adopting a sulcata. We do not agree with all of this information. Specifically, we absolutely do not support the idea of keeping sulcata tortoises indoors once they are no longer a hatchling, regardless of how great your setup is.

In my mind, there are a small handful of important things to keep in mind before adding a sulcata to your family. These are:

  • Sulcatas can reach 150lbs or more.
  • Sulcatas may live to be over 100 years old – you need to include a care plan in your estate plan and/or a plan for when they become too heavy for you to care for as you age.
  • Sulcatas are from the African savanna, and they are evolved to eat grass and cactus, not fruit and not grocery store produce. Keeping them on a natural diet is how they’ll stay healthiest and live the longest (although we think the occasional treat is fine).
  • Sulcatas can be destructive and will rearrange things to their liking.
  • Sulcatas need a BIG area to grow and thrive.
  • Sulcatas need heated winter housing that they can access whenever outdoor temps drop below 50 degrees.
  • Your current sulcata is not lonely and does not need a friend. You just want a herd of tortoises. Consider what’s best for the animal instead.

And now let’s hear from some other folks!

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A poem that my friend Julie at the Turtle Rescue of Long Island said I could share:

Here in this yard… I will never know the barriers of living in a glass tank.
I can sleep soundly, assured that when I wake my world will not have changed.
I will never know hunger, or the fear of not knowing if I’ll eat.
I will not shiver in the cold, or grow weary from the heat.
I will feel the sun’s heat, and the rain’s coolness, and be allowed to smell all that can reach my nose.
My shell will be dirty because that’s how a tortoise should be, not shiny from being waxed.

Here in this yard… There will be an effort to communicate with me on my level.
I will be talked to and, even if I don’t understand, I can enjoy the warmth of the words.
I will be given a name so that I may know who I am among many.
My name will be used in joy, and I will love the sound of it!

Here in this yard… I will never be a substitute for anything I am not.
I will never be used to improve peoples’ images of themselves.
I will be loved because I am who I am, not someone’s idea of who I should be.
I will never suffer for someone’s anger, impatience, or stupidity.
Here in this yard… I can trust arms that hold, hands that touch…
knowing that, no matter what they do, they do it for the good of me.
If I am ill, I will be doctored. If scared, I will be calmed.
No matter what I look like, I will be considered beautiful and known to be of value.
I will never be cast out because I am too old, too ill, too unruly, or not cute enough.
My life is a responsibility, and not an afterthought.
I will learn that humans can, sometimes, be kind.

Here in this yard… I will belong. I will be home.

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From Melissa Kaplan’s Herp Care Collection

Sulcata Tortoises

African spurred tortoise (Geochelone sulcata)

©1996 Melissa Kaplan.

Note: these are not the spur-thigh tortoises, Testudo graeca or Geochelone iberi

Natural History
Sulcata tortoises are native to more northern parts of Africa, ranging from the southern edge of the Sahara down through the arid countries, including Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, the Sudan, and Ethiopia, up through the dry, hot Massaua coast bordering the Red Sea.

Captive bred and imported Sulcatas can be found increasingly found in the pet trade. The sulcata is the largest of the African mainland tortoise, with specimens easily reaching 24-30 inches (60-75 cm) in carapace length and 80-110 pounds (36-50 kg). The largest on record was a male resident of the Giza Zoological Gardens (Egypt) who weighed in at 232 lb (105.5 kg) and measured 41.6 inches (104 cm) over the carapace (Flower, 1925, in Stearns). The oldest recorded specimen in captivity, also at the Giza Zoological Gardens, was 54 years of age (Hughes, 1986, in Stearns).

Sulcatas have broad, flattened carapaces, evenly brownish or yellowish in color. As they age, the growth rings inches on each of the scutes are strongly marked. Mature males develop reverted marginal scales in the front. The gulars on the plastron (the marginal scales just under the neck) are deeply forked; the anal scutes are also deeply divided. The skin on the legs is well blended into the shell color. Well-defined spurs, which serve no observable function, are present on the back of the rear legs. Their skin is very thick which may serve to reduce fluid loss through transpiration.

Sulcatas come from some of the Sahel, the hottest, driest area in Africa. Some regions may not get rain for years. To make the most of available moisture, their skin is resistant to fluid loss but, when exposed to moisture, may become highly permeable. Towards this end, they will excavate pallets or burrows in the ground to get to areas with higher moisture levels; in the wild, they may spend the hottest part of the day in these microhabitats. Burrows may average 30 inches in depth; some dig tunnel systems extending 10 feet or more underground. Sulcatas are, like most turtles and tortoises native to dry areas, extremely efficient in their use of water. A sulcata may urinate just 0.64 ml a day, significantly less than their spur-thighed cousins living in the relatively lush Mediterranean countries who may urinate 1-2 ml a day. A danger, then, in captivity is that too much water may be given or made accessible which may lead to health problems including skin and shell infections and kidney problems.

In captivity, a similarly hot and dry environment must be provided year round. Unlike the California desert tortoises, the sulcatas do not hibernate. While they can tolerate some surprisingly low temperatures, they cannot be allowed to get both chilled and wet or kept outdoors in chill, damp weather.

Housing
Daytime temperatures during much of the year should range from 85-105 F (29-40 C) during the day. At night, temperatures can drop into the 70s F (21-26 C) in their enclosure. They must be dry. Provisions must be made to house them indoors during rainy weather and in places where the nights are cold and/or damp.

Outdoors
Sulcatas can be housed outdoors only if they are provided dry, heated housing into which they will retire at night and during inclement weather. If they will not come out and go in on their own, they will have to be directed or physically moved. (Note that while this may not be a problem when the tortoises weigh less than 25 pounds or so, it can become quite problematic when they weigh 90 pounds or more.) In sufficiently dry areas that are protected from predators and humans, sulcatas may be kept outdoors at night as well, with living in-ground trees and shrubs providing the shelter over their pallets they require. Some owners recommend making sure that fencing surrounding the compound be opaque: if the sulcatas can see through it, they will try to plow through or burrow under it.

A dog house or, for younger sulcatas, a trash can laid on its side, make suitable houses for sulcatas. They must be raised up off the ground and must be supplied with heat during colder weather. A wide ramp must be constructed for them to move easily in and out. Make a curtain to cover the opening; a couple of layers of plastic drop cloth, cut into 2-3 inch wide strips, will create a curtain that can easily be pushed through but will keep out draughts. It will also help insulate the house by reducing heat loss. During the winter months, insulating layers of plastic, sod or wood can be used to cover the top and sides of the house. Red lights or ceramic heating elements, suspended from the ceiling of the house and safely out of reach of the tortoise, may be used during cool weather. A pig blanket (also called a farrowing pad, these are rigid heating pads made for pigs to lie upon) can be used inside on the floor.

Sulcatas like to burrow and they are quite good at doing so. They feel more comfortable when they can feel their environment around them. When a pig blanket on the floor is enough for heat, a trash can may work just fine as they can feel the sides of it around it. The curtain across the doorway helps as well by providing not only insulation by a physical, albeit passable, barrier. Fresh mounds of alfalfa hay or pesticide- and pest-free leaves and grass can be placed inside to also give them a burrowing medium. Check regularly and replace as necessary.

A shallow water bowl, with sides low enough for the tortoise to reach into, should be available at all times if there is no wallow available. Tortoises do not swim, they sink. You need to make sure they can easily access the water but that it is not any deeper than the tortoise’s bridge, the section of shell that joins the carapace (top shell) and plastron (bottom shell). A bowl or flowerpot saucer (plastic or glazed ceramic) may be find for a larger tortoise; it may need to be sunk slightly into the substrate for smaller tortoises. Be prepared to refresh daily and clean frequently.

A note on predators and other harmful species:
Animals such as raccoons and opossums may prey upon sleeping tortoises. Dogs and cats may harm tortoises just by being inquisitive or playful…small tortoises look, smell and taste too enticing to not be a chew toy! Tortoises kept in front and easily accessible side yards are enticing to unscrupulous members of a two legged species: many tortoises have been spirited out of their yards by humans. Make sure all fencing is secure, both to prevent the tortoise from barging through it or digging under it, and to prevent unwanted visitors from coming in or accidentally letting them out.

Indoors
Given the tremendous amount of room these tortoises need to roam, maintaining them inside year round is not advised. Temporary indoor housing, as for hatchlings (see section on hatchlings below), sick individuals or during inclement weather, can be set up. Such indoor housing must include both basking and cooler retreat areas, and a den box in which to burrow. An area for feeding and a shallow water dish must also be provided. Ultraviolet B lighting must be provided as well as suitable temperature ranges during both the day (80 F (27 C) with a basking area (100 F (39C)) and night (72 F (22 C)).

Behavior
Sulcatas like to move around and are very strong — they must have a large area in which to freely and widely roam. Sulcatas also need to burrow away from the heat and do so by retreating to their pallets or into muddy wallows where they will stay for hours, flipping cool mud up onto their backs. When temperatures exceed 104 F (40 C), they will begin to salivate heavily, smearing the saliva on their forearms to help cool themselves down.

Whether housed indoors or out, Sulcatas roam about and are voracious eaters. Like many tortoises, they are also climbers. Care must be taken to assure they are not given the opportunity to climb things that are too steep resulting in their toppling over. If they flip onto their backs and are not able to right themselves, they may die of hyperthermia if they do it during the hottest part of the day. They may also choke or drown on their own vomit if they panic. They may lose precious water by voiding urates and thus become seriously dehydrated. Suffocation is also a possibility if they are left upside down too long as their lungs, which are near the top of their carapace, are compressed by the weight of their internal organs. Sulcatas also need to burrow away from the heat and do so by retreating to their pallets or into muddy wallows where they will stay for hours, flipping cool mud up onto their backs. When temperatures exceed 104 F (40 C), they will begin to salivate heavily, smearing the saliva on their forearms to help cool themselves down.

Keep dangerous objects out of their area. Steps, dogs, raccoons and children are among some of the dangers that must be guarded against. So too are thorny cacti, human and animal hair, pesticides and herbicides, small plastic, glass and metal toys, and toxic plants. Sulcatas are voracious, if not always smart, eaters and will ingest anything small enough and colorful enough.

Provide variety and security. Tortoises do not bask on the bare open ground. Provide a cluster of sturdy, low growing plants they can crowd in amongst. Provide an interesting terrain by leaving (or building) some low hummocks, smooth rocks, pieces of wood, clumps of weeds and edible plants.

Food and Feeding
The phrase used most commonly by sulcata owners to describe their tortoises is “eating machine.” Sulcatas graze and forage for hours during the day. In the wild, much of their intake is from extremely hard to digest tough plant fibers from grasses. In captivity, a wide variety of vegetables and fruits can be offered (see list below) but sulcatas, like all tortoises, need to be able to graze on pesticide- and herbicide-free grasses and weeds. While sulcatas may be successfully reared for the first couple of years in a small yard, larger specimens need lots of yard with forage for them. Lists of toxic plants are available which should be used to determine which plants to keep out of your yard.

Three of the most important factors in constructing tortoise diets are the calcium:phosphorous ratio of the food and supplements ingested, the amount and type of protein eaten, and roughage–lots and lots of roughage. Too much phosphorous, or too little calcium, will cause bones and shell softening and deformity, and impairs metabolism and organ function. Too much protein, and feeding the wrong kind of protein (such as vertebrates, invertebrates, and commercial mammal foods) or too much of certain proteins (legumes, soy and alfalfa hay products) will cause too rapid growth, kidney failure, shell deformities and decrease life span. Studies of the feces of wild tortoises have shown that they do not ingest much in the way of animal protein. The animal component found in the feces was no greater than the small amount of other nonfood items such as small stones, feathers, fur and lizard skin sheds: in short, whatever was in the way as they were grabbing at their plants of choice (Highfield). Necessary protein may easily, and should, be supplied by plant proteins.

For roughage–to help provide the highly fibrous forage they eat in the wild–use hay flakes. Found at feed and grain (farm and ranch supply) stores, flakes can be put down for them to bite into and move around. Flakes are usually easier for most humas to lift and carry, and transport in their cars. If you can handle a full bale of good grass, that’s fine, too.

Other food concerns include:

  • Too many “wet” foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and leafy greens, including the nutrition-poor, water-rich lettuces, and the healthier greens such as collards, dandelions, etc.
  • Feeding of too much goitrogenic vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage and bok choy. In excess, compounds in these vegetables can impair thyroid function and cause goiter. Since you are going to keep these vegetables and greens to the level of occasional treats only, excess goitrogen intake shouldn’t be a problem.
  • If you are considering using a commercial tortoise food product, check the ingredients. The main ingredient in most of them is soy. Most also contain a lot of corn, an ingredient whose key contribution to the mix is that it is cheap.
  • Foods which have fats added, and fatty foods (including soybean derivative) should be avoided as well. Fat impedes calcium metabolism and in general is not well metabolized by herbivores; liver damage and inability to retain Vitamin A result.
  • Care must be taken when feeding greens high in calcium oxalate (parsley, spinach, rhubarb, beet greens, collards, carrots tops, etc.) as the oxalic acid binds calcium. Fed in high enough quantities, it may not only cause metabolic bone disease due to preventing the metabolism of enough calcium, it may also cause visceral gout, the mineralization of the soft tissues and internal organs.
  • Cactus fruits, plantain, and desert mallow are plants favored by California desert tortoises which may be well received by sulcatas. Other California/southwestern native plants which seem to be preferred by desert tortoises include red-stem fialree, threeawn, red gramma, as well as rattlesnake weed, six weeks fescue, and the flower buds and stem tips of pencil cholla.

The bulk of their overall intake, however, should be from flake hay, pesticide- and herbicide-free grass and grass cuttings, cheat grass, clover, edible flowers (nasturtium, geraniums, hibiscus, rose petals and shrubs).

Fruits are very high in moisture fruits and should be fed in moderation to these tortoises who get little such free moisture in the plants they eat in the wild. Occasional small servings of fruits such as strawberries, chunks of organically grown bananas with skin, cantaloupe with rind attached, berries; peaches (no pits), apricots (no pits), pears, apples (no seeds) may be offered. Oranges and tomatoes may be fed, but not to hatchlings. Figs are a great source of calcium, but must be rehydrated if you can’t find fresh ones out of season.

Sweet and colorful treats, such as fruit and edible flowers, are a great way to lure (bribe) your sulcata to go where you want him to go once he becomes too heavy to easily pick up and carry.

Sulcatas respond to bright colors and will try to harvest them on their own, so keep brightly colored inedible things away from them! You will also have to block their access to ornamental flowring and fruiting plants: a motivated sulcata will literally move walls and support posts embedded in concrete to get to something that interests them. (This also includes plowing through a screen door if they want to get inside the house…and do not assume that a few steps between the yard and deck will stop them once their legs are long enough to reach the bottom step.)

Sulcatas are prodigious eaters and are equally prodigious in the amount of waste products they will deposit around their environment. While sulcatas regularly ingest their own and other animal feces, they leave more than enough to keep any caretaker quite busy on a daily basis. Due to their coprophagy, fecal samples should be regularly tested to assure they are free from bacterial, protozoan and worm infestations.

Vitamin Supplements
Most sulcata keepers routinely supplement their tortoise diets with both a multivitamin supplement and a calcium supplement; others do not supplement at all. Given the often extremely low calcium levels in the greens and vegetables offered to sulcatas in captivity, and the variable nutritional content based on the differences in the soil content in which the plants were grown, regular supplementation will help even out any inconsistencies and trace element deficiencies in their diet.

Health Problems
Two common diet related health problems easily observable to the caretaker are shell softening (calcium deficiency or excessive phosphorous) and pyramiding (generally associated with too much protein). If either of these conditions manifests itself, an immediate reassessment of the diet needs to be done. A visit to the veterinarian (or a home visit by the vet in the case of larger adults) for blood sampling is advised.

High levels of dietary protein may also cause increased uric acid in the bladder and may result in death. In severe cases, the normally gelatinous urates (the white and fluid material which is voided out during defecation) becomes solid and may even become impacted. Moderate cases may be taken off protein and soaked frequently to increase the volume of water in the body to help thin the urates. In extreme cases, surgery may be required to removed impacted urates.

Like many chelonians, sulcatas are prone to respiratory infections. Not only must the illness itself be treated, but the tortoise’s environment and diet. Prolonged psychological stress may lead to physical illness through its affect on the immune system, thus interactions with any other tortoises with whom it may be housed must also be evaluated. Symptoms of respiratory infection include nasal discharge, watery eyes (occurs in cold weather only), loss of appetite, and lethargy. The animal will require treatment with antibiotics as well as supportive care, including warm temperatures and, in the case of nephrotoxic drugs, fluids. Severe cases may require hand- for forced-feeding.

Sexing
There is little morphological difference between males and females. Males may be larger than females when they breed. Bred females have polished carapaces due to the rubbing of the male’s plastron (Cloudsley-Thompson). Grubb (1971, in Stearns) notes slightly flatter carapaces in females and slightly concave plastrons in males. There is no significant difference in tail size or shape between the sexes.

Males and females both can be quite aggressive, stating almost from the time they hatch. Ramming others, attempting to flip others over are both behaviors continued by males after they reach sexual maturity (about 14 inches (35 cm) carapace length). Unless there is great size disparity, however, flipping rarely occurs, but bloodied and often severely injured heads and limbs may result from repeated ramming. Unless their outdoor area is extremely large, housing multiple males together should be avoided.

Breeding
Copulation may take place anytime from June through March, but occurs most frequently right after the raining season, during the months from September through November. During the several copulation events which may take place each day, the female is weighted down by the much larger and heavier, and rather vocal, males. The females stay in one place during the event, with movement restricted to a side-to-side shifting of the hind quarters.

Soon after mating (generally between September and December), the developing eggs take up increasing room inside the female’s body. Food intake will decrease. Restless behavior will be noted as the female begins to roam the compound looking for suitable nesting sites. For five to fifteen days, four or five nests may be excavated before she finally selects the location in which the eggs will be laid. The site is generally in one of the trial nests. The digging may start like the usual pallet digging, but the female soon turns around and continues to dig using her hind legs.

Loose dirt is kicked out of the depression, and the female may frequently urinate into the depression. Once it reaches approximately 2 feet (.6 m) in diameter and approximately 3-6 inches (7-14 cm) deep, a further depression, measuring some eight inches (20 cm) across and in depth, will be dug out towards the back of the original depression. The work of digging the nest may take up to five hours; the speed with which it is dug seems to be dependent upon the relative hardness of the ground. It usually takes place when the ambient air temperature is around 78 F (27 C). Once the nest is dug, the female begins to lay an egg every three minutes. Clutches may contain 15-30 or more eggs. Tortoises in warmer climates where they are outdoors most of the year may double clutch. After the eggs are laid, the female fills in the nest, taking an hour or more to fully cover them all.

Eggs incubate in the ground for eight months. They have been successfully incubated in captivity, using enclosed containers half-filled with vermiculite and water in a ratio of 1:1-2 by weight, or in open containers in chick incubators with water replenished as needed. Both the closed container and the incubator were opened once a week to allow fresh oxygen to reach the eggs. Incubation temperatures ranged from 82.5-84 F (28-29 C), with hatching taking place between 118-156 days later, with some hatchlings emerging as early as 92 days; one zoo reported hatchlings emerging as late as 170 days later (Stearns). The length of time from the first pipping to actual emergence of the hatchling from the shell may vary as well, from 24-72 hours. Some have almost no yolk left, while still others have a sizable yolk sac still attached, as much as 25% of their total mass. Such hatchlings are placed on damp paper towels in individual covered containers and maintained at 84 F (29 C) until the yolk is absorbed.

Hatchlings
Hatchlings are 1.5-2 inches (4-6 cm) carapace length. They are somewhat long and narrow, oval-shaped, weighing less than one ounce (20-25 gm). Their scutes are pale yellow, almost sandy colored, bordered in brown. Hatchlings have been observed with supernumerary scales, additional and often irregular or asymmetrical scales on their carapace. Hatchlings are aggressive right from the start, and quite active, starting their ramming behavior when just a few days old. Anything may be subject to ramming, including furnishings in their enclosures.

Hatchlings may be maintained indoors in aquariums. Edible substrates, such as alfalfa hay or pellets, may be used. Half the enclosure should be placed on a heating pad enabling the hatchling to thermoregulate itself. The warm side of the enclosure should not range above (29 C), and the cool side no colder, and not much warmer, than 72 F (22 C). In addition, a heat lamp to provide a focal basking spot with a 105-110 (40-43 C) basking surface temperature should be provided in one corner of the enclosure on the warm side. To provide the necessary ultraviolet B exposure, hatchlings kept inside must be given 10-12 hours a day exposure to UVB-producing fluorescent lights.

Hatchlings may also be housed outdoors during the day during clement weather in an enclosure suitably protected against entry or damage from predators. As with outdoor enclosures for adults, hatchlings must be provided with cooler retreats and food for foraging.

Hatchlings may start feeding right away or may not eat for the first couple of weeks; the first defecation may take longer. Food should be put out right away, however, and each day thereafter until it starts feeding. Once it starts feeding, food should be offered every other day, with any leftovers removed from the enclosure. Food selection of hatchlings tend towards more succulent plants; offer dark greens such as collards, alfalfa, kale, dandelion, grasses. Analysis of self-selected hatchling diets showed them to be composed of 4% protein, 5% fiber, and 71% carbohydrate, with 76 calories per 100 grams.

When offered insects or other animal protein, it may be accepted. Too much protein may cause growth abnormalities and health problems. Many breeders, veterinarians, and researchers believe that no animal protein, other than what they may incidentally pick up while grazing out of doors, need or should be given to hatchlings or adults.

Vitamin supplements, both a multivitamin and a calcium supplement may be added to their food. Some hatchlings and adults appear to do fine without supplementation.

Twice weekly, hatchlings housed in enclosures should be bathed in shallow tepid water. Short, fifteen minute soaks helps to stimulate elimination.

Sulcatas also grow very quickly, reaching their full growth within 15-20 years (Villiers, 1952, in Stearns) and will rapidly outgrow space that would last smaller, more slowly growing species for some time. Growth rates may vary, even between sulcatas who are raised together and fed identically. Growth in the wild is dependent on the season and nutritional content of the food, with the rainy season seeing the fastest growth spurts. Captive sulcatas allowed to free roam and graze grow faster, with less supplemental water intake, than those fed a mixture of grasses and plants once a day and offered water daily (Cloudsley-Thompson).

A Final Note
Writing the last sentence above about any always makes the author and knowledgeable readers cringe. Our fear is that the novice animal care taker will read “the more room and food they have, the faster they will grow” and decide “so if I don’t feed them much and keep them in a small enclosure, they won’t grow, or won’t grow very fast.” This is certainly true to a certain extent. Such actions, however, result in sickly animals, in animals so psychological stressed by their inability to obey natural instincts and move about, climb and forage, that the animal may injure, even kill itself through trying to escape or due to severe physical and psychological stresses related to the unnatural and unsuitable environment. Reptiles are particularly tricky in this area as, since they live so much longer than other types of animals, and they have such an incredible facility for conserving energy resources, that they may take months, even years, to finally die.

Sulcatas get big. They get big fast. Sulcatas are not appropriate pets for anyone living in a house without a yard. They are completely unsuited for anyone living in an apartment. Many buyers of large reptiles believe that they can keep them for a few years until they get “too big” and then sell them or give them to a zoo. Surprises are in store for such owners when they find that zoos aren’t interested (having more than enough former pets and regular zoo stock already) and people who are buying them are interested only in small ones. As of the date this is being written, large pythons and iguanas are being euthanized due to lack of homes for unwanted ones. Those of us involved in reptile rescue and animal shelter work foresee the day in the not too distant future when sulcata tortoises will join their reptilian cousins under the needle. There are many wonderful tortoises out there more suited to smaller homes and yards, tortoises that do not require kidney belts and hernia repair to pick up and move them, and who in turn will not redecorate your house and yard by knocking through walls and fixtures. If you do not already have a sulcata, please make your decision very carefully. Check with your local herpetological or turtle and tortoise societies and find out if anyone in your area has adults and seek the opportunity to meet the owners and their tortoises. While many people can visualize just how long 24 inches is and how much 100 pounds weighs, actually seeing a tortoise that size is a breathtaking–and sobering–sight.

Sources:

Alderton, David. (1992) Turtles and Tortoises of the World. Facts on File, Inc.

Flower, Maj. S.S. (1925) Contributions to our knowledge of the duration of life in vertebrate animals. III. Reptiles. Proceedings, Zoological Society of London. 60(3):911-925.

Highfield, Andrew C. (1995) Notes on Dietary Constituents for Herbivorous Terrestrial Chelonians and their effect on Growth and Development. British Tortoise Trust. British Tortoise Trust

Hughes, B. (1986) Longevity records of African captive amphibians and reptiles. Journal of the Herpetologist Association of Africa 32:1-9

Pritchard, Peter C.H. (1974) Encyclopedia of Turtles. TFH Publishing.

Rood, Felice. Exotic Tortoise-Africa; Care of Adult Desert Tortoises in Sacramento; General Care of Exotic Tortoises. Undated handouts. Sacramento Turtle and Tortoise Society.

Stearns, Brett C. (1988) Captive husbandry and propagation of the African spurred tortoise, Geochelone sulcata. Proceedings, International Herpetology Symposium, San Antonio, Texas, pp. 44-566.

Villiers, A. (1962) West African tortoises, turtles and terrepins. African Wildlife 16(1):39-52.

A Note on UVB-Producing Fluorescent Lights:
Note: No incandescent bulb, including those marketed as “full spectrum”, is capable of emitting UVB wavelengths, thus they are suitable for heat/basking only. You need to use fluorescent lights made for reptiles for purposes of providing ultraviolet B. Not all such fluorescents produce enough UVB. Make your selection from the following: DayCycle (TetraTerrafaun), Vita-Lite (Durotest; not their compact fluorescent), Zoo Med’s 5.0+ iguana or reptile lights (same product, different packaging and sometimes different price). In Europe, look for the Zoo Med or OTT Lighting fluorescent tubes. For those considering using a mercury vapor lamp for UVB and heat, please read my comments on these products.

An excerpt of this article was published under the title African Spurred Tortoises in Reptile and Amphibian Magazine, Sept/Oct 1996, pp. 32-45

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The Turtle Rescue of Long Island‘s post: SULCATA TORTOISE

Sulcata tortoises, –Centrochelys or  Geochelone Sulcata, also referred to as the African spurred tortoise, is the third largest tortoise in the world. Originating in the sub-Saharan regions of  Africa where they once covered a vast range, they began being imported into the pet trade and now only isolated groups are found where this magnificent tortoise once roamed in abundance. They are no longer imported into the United States and are protected under CITES * regulations.  It is amazing to me how a tortoise is now in need of protection in it’s native country when here in the states we are begging people to stop breeding them: there are so many ending up in rescues because of the irresponsible breeding and selling of them. So many saw how easy it was to make a quick buck and jumped on that opportunity. Sad that so many Sulcata tortoises have had to pay the price for that selfish act.

Each year we at Turtle Rescue of Long Island take in many turtles and tortoises that need to be placed in new homes for one reason or another, but by far the Sulcata’s  take the lead on those that come in here in the worst shape for  reasons of poor husbandry and the excuse is almost always “The tortoise is getting too big.” Let’s face it, where in a colder climate are you going to keep a tortoise that is going to grow  to weigh over a hundred pounds? No Sulcata or any tortoise should ever live in a tank, but that’s where most start out. Pet stores sell them with that cute little ten gallon tank. That poor thing then gets roasted for the first year of it’s life because some uneducated pet store employee told the new tortoise keeper this is a desert tortoise and it can live in here on sand and will get it’s water from the lettuce you feed it. WRONG! They then throw a heat lamp over that tank and literally dry out that poor tortoise and by dehydrating it cause the shell to start to deform. Then MBD (Metabolic Bone Disease) begins.  The tortoise is usually fed romaine. Let’s take a look at the nutritional value of romaine compared to a couple of more favored greens.

Unit Romaine Turnip Greens Dandelion Greens
Water g 94.61 89.67 89.80
Fiber g 2.1 3.2  2.9
Calcium mg 33 190 140
Phos. mg 30 42 42
Vit. A IU 8710 11587 14544

 

Source:  http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/search/

In the wild these tortoises survive on grasses and weeds. They need a high-fiber low-protein diet:  one should always look for a double calcium-to-phosphorus ratio when feeding greens. If you look at the difference between the romaine and the other two greens above you’ll see the turnip greens and dandelion greens are a much better choice by far to add to the diet than romaine. Ideally  the tortoises should be outside grazing and grass and weeds should comprise 70% of their diet, with 30% being the dark leafy greens. If a Sulcata must be kept inside and grass is not available then a diet more like the natural diet it would receive in the wild should be provided. In the wild they will find dry grasses and have even been seen pushing clumps of grasses into their chambers in the wild to live off of during the harsh months when no food is available. Here we can provide them with hay, which would be the same thing. Orchard grass, timothy, hay salad, botanical blends, can be given, just not alfalfa which is high in proteins. The hay salad available from www.carolinapetsupply.com is a great addition to some greens for a tortoise that does not have access to outside grazing.

I’ve occasionally heard hatchling tortoises should only be fed greens. Phooey! If they were in the wild and they were left to fend for themselves they would be eating whatever the adults were eating. It’s a cruel world out there and once those babies hatch in nature they fend for themselves. They don’t have us tortoise keepers hovering over them cutting their greens and making sure their food is soft. Personally I don’t think we are doing them any favors by doing so. By adding hay salad to their food at an early age they are being fed a good diet and getting used to eating the right foods from the get-go. Every Sulcata tortoise, young and old, that comes through our rescue gets fed the same diet. In the summer they get to graze on the grass, clover, broadleaf weeds and various plants that we have that are edible (none chemically treated) but in addition to that they get fed a couple of times a week a mix of hay salad with dark leafy greens so they are used to the texture and taste of the hay. I do this so if they go on to live in a home where they need to be fed hay they are used to eating it. Not everyone has access to an outdoor grazing area twelve months out of the year and with our current temperature trends most keepers in all states have at least a few weeks time during which they have to bring their Sulcata in and feed them. It helps to get them used to eating hay at an early age. If the tortoise is really small I take the hay salad and put it in a blender to make it even finer adding it to dampened greens. It sticks to the wet greens so they get it that way including the flavor.

Diet is just one of the important factors when keeping a Sulcata tortoise but it’s not the only thing to keep in mind when you have one of these tortoises in your care. In the wild although they come from an arid region they also have a rainy season so they are not always as dry as one is led to believe. It has also been found that when in their burrows the humidity can quite high. This is likely due to their expelling urates while in these burrows. One of the biggest mistakes new Sulcata keepers make is to keep their tortoises too dry. They stick them in a tank on desert sand with no water. BIG MISTAKE! Add the basking light and this is slow death for a tortoise. They actually dehydrate very quickly. The habitat should have a substrate that is slightly damp. Not moist, not wet, just slightly damp. Just damp enough that when you squeeze a clump of it the clump will hold together but no water drips out. A great substrate is an equal mix of coir and play sand. Coir is shredded coconut fiber sold in a compressed brick that, with water added, expands to about 6-8 times it’s size to make a soft substrate. Alone it’s not very good but mixed with the play sand it more closely resembles natural earthen soil. The tortoises can burrow into it if they want and if they ingest any they will pass it so long as they are well hydrated.

This also brings to mind that water should always be provided in the tortoise enclosure in a dish which is not too deep, but large enough for them to walk into easily and get out of easily. There are many reptile dishes on the market designed for tortoises or a simple little Tupperware works just fine as well. The important thing is that it be provided.  Don’t let your tortoise become a victim of dehydration and bladder stones as this one did: http://turtlerescues.org/gallery2/main.php?g2_itemId=9740&g2_navId=x38a9dbfc

Along with that habitat not being too arid it must also not be too small. In the wild Sulcata tortoises walk. They walk a lot. They walk looking for graze or a mate or a good place to bask or burrow, but that’s what they do. Give them ample space in captivity to do the same. Don’t stick them in a glass tank. Envision yourself living in a small closet. Would you like that? We’ll throw you food daily and maybe change your water. No, you wouldn’t be happy. Neither will your tortoise. No space will be large enough for your new tortoise but give him what you can, as much as you can to make him feel like he has some freedom to roam around without putting him in harm’s way. His environment should be large but secure from predators if it is outside be sure it is escape proof. Sulcata’s dig and dig fast and many do escape. Don’t leave a gate open and if you have children make sure they don’t leave the gates open. Best thing is to place a board across any gate areas so even if the gate gets left open that tortoise can’t get out. You can step over the board, the tortoise can’t. For some good ideas of habitats go to our enclosure gallery. http://www.turtlerescues.org/gallery2/main.php?g2_itemId=726

When a tortoise is kept indoors it is imperative that it have UVB lighting. You cannot skimp in this area at all. It’s essential to their health and well being. Just like we need sunshine to process D3, so do tortoises. It’s how their shell and bones stay healthy. Just like our bones stay healthy as well as the rest of our body from the benefit of Vitamin D from the sun. Often people will write asking why we think their tortoise is suddenly acting so solemn. When we suggest it may be their UVB lamp and it should be changed the keeper is often surprised at the dramatic change in the tortoise’s behavior from being depressed with no appetite to suddenly being active and eating again. There are many bulbs on the market: do your research and be sure you get one that is not going to do more harm than good. Here we use UV/heat lamps so we only have one fixture over each enclosure rather than one for heat and one for UVB. Placing the bulb in a deep dome fixture will help direct the heat to one spot and also protect your eyes from the UVB. These bulbs are also available at the store mentioned above.

I think that about covers the basics. For more detailed information you can find everything you need to know including a great list of edible plants for the Sulcata at www.africantortoise.com  -and great links to other sites too.

Here are a few photos of some of the tortoises that have come in here and why I ask people to do their research and do the right thing for their new tortoise. We don’t want more to come in looking like these.

You’ll have to look at their post to see the photos, I couldn’t get them to load properly here

Those are just a small sample of the many that have come into our rescue looking awful. It breaks your heart when you have a tortoise come in that can’t even hold it’s own weight on it’s legs because it’s so weak from poor nutrition and just overall poor care, all because it’s owner didn’t take the time or just didn’t care enough to give the tortoise the nutrition and environment it needed . Don’t let your tortoise fall victim to neglect like these have. It’s so easy to give them the simple care they need to live a long healthy life. The basics are so easy.

Lots of sunshine (UVB lamp) Temp range 95F – 70 F

Grass and weeds (Hay/greens)

Fresh water (easy access water dish/humidity at substrate level)

Exercise (big enclosure)

We have on our site the Sulcata Challenge: take a look. If you’re not up to the challenge a Sulcata is not for you. If you think you can take one and keep it until it’s too big, think again. Zoos are full, rescues are full, sanctuaries are full and good homes are becoming hard to find. We stopped charging a fee to take them in because we found people were dumping them but I’m afraid at the rate we are getting them in we are going to have to impose that fee once again. We just can’t afford to continue to house and feed the many that come in here. At the time I am writing this article I have 15 of these magnificent tortoises here and we have already placed several this year. Sad.

If you’re going to keep a Sulcata let him grow up to be a beautiful Sulcata tortoise. Give him everything he needs and make the lifetime commitment.

A healthy hatchling can grow to be a beautiful adult if given proper care. The above tortoise is an example of what a healthy tortoise should look like. No lumps, no bumps.

Sulcata Challenge: http://turtlerescues.com/sulcata_challenge.htm

Sulcata Information: http://www.africantortoise.com/

Hay, Lighting, Etc.: http://www.carolinapetsupply.com/catalog/ 

Check List:

  • No glass tanks, need large open enclosure
  • Substrate 50/50 mix coir / play sand or similar kept slightly damp
  • 70% grass or hay 30% weeds or greens (High fiber – Low protein)
  • Lots of sunshine or good UV/heat lamp
  • Temp range 95F (35C) to 70F (21C)
  • No fruit except occasion cactus pear
  • Creamy urates are normal but if they start getting gritty the tortoise is dehydrated
  • Avoid pellet diets – they are made with grains and fillers, not good food**

http://www.cites.org/  (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species)

** http://www.sawellnesscenter.com//nutrition/Diet/Cereal%20article-1.pdf

©2010 Turtle Rescue of Long Island – all rights reserved.

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The Turtle Rescue of Long Island’s SULCATA CHALLENGE

(Geochelone sulcata) The third largest tortoise in the world

Is It the Right Pet for You?

Take a look here and see if you’re up for the challenge of owning a tortoise that can grow to be upwards of 150 pounds or more.

Sulcata tortoises start out like all other tortoises, tiny and adorable.  Probably weighing about 30 grams.  That’s less than the weight of a small cell phone.  In the first year that tortoise will most likely triple in size if given proper care. If overfed or given a poor diet like so many are, it will most likely grow to ten times its hatchling size. Sadly it may also by this time have Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) if a proper diet was not followed.

When the Sulcata is young many think they can keep this tortoise in an aquarium. Aquariums are for fish. Aqua means water. Tortoises live on land, not in water. They need good air flow and lots of space for exercise. They need what is called a tortoise table to start out. Are you able to provide enough space to give a Sulcata the space it needs?  A hatchling would probably be okay in a 2’x4’ area for the first year, but after that will need much more space.  Do you have a room large enough to dedicate that space to a tortoise?  When it reaches twenty pounds in a couple of years and is over a foot long will you have the space then?

You also have to consider the cost of equipment. These tortoises are from Africa. The sub-Saharan region across north central Africa. It’s hot. They cannot be left out in the cold. They need to be provided with heat at all times, and also with good quality UV lighting. Not full spectrum bulbs, but true UV lighting, like T-Rex or Powersun bulbs that have a good output of UV rays that are essential for a tortoise to produce the D3 it needs for proper bone/shell growth. These bulbs are expensive and need to be replaced at least every 12 months, maybe more often. They also need some amount of humidity. Contrary to what many pet shops will tell you, research shows that these tortoises spend much time in burrows in the wild where the humidity is 70%, so they should not be kept bone dry. They should be kept on a substrate that holds some humidity.  A 50/50 mix of coir/plays and makes a great mix for the little ones and cypress mulch is great for the larger guys. Both hold some moisture and will keep the humidity they need. A dry area with some hay should also be provided. Can you provide these areas for this tortoise? Are you willing to put up with the smell of hay in your home?

Now for their diet. You can’t just open a jar of food for these tortoises. They have special needs. They are grazing tortoises so need grazing foods like grasses and weeds. These grasses and weeds need to be fertilizer and pesticide free. They can have a certain amount of high fiber greens like turnip greens, kale, escarole, etc., but the majority (70%) of their diet should be grasses/weeds. Hay is a good way to supplement when grass and weeds are not available. There are online stores like www.carolinapetsupply.com that sell a hay salad that the Sulcata will readily eat when raised on a proper diet. Sulcata should not be fed fruit. Fruit has the potential to cause a parasite bloom in Sulcata so should be avoided. The only fruit that seems to be okay for them is Opuntia cactus pear. The cactus pads themselves are also a great food for them and can be fed about once weekly. There are lots of prepackaged tortoise foods being sold on the market. Read the ingredients. If they are not made with grass/hay/weeds they are not good for your tortoise. Soybean hulls and wheat midlings are fillers, not good nutrition, avoid them. Pretty colors of pellets don’t make them a good food. Don’t waste your money.

Now for the clean up! Have you ever cleaned up after a horse? Well you may want to visit a stable for a few days before deciding on owning a Sulcata. They eat like a horse and they poop and urinate like one too.  Most Sulcata will poop every day. This is not so much of a problem when you can keep them outside, but when you have to clean up after them on a daily basis in your home it’s not so easy. It’s quite messy. They don’t care that you have to clean it up and they don’t usually leave it in a neat pile for you. They like to drag it around and smear it all over, and are especially fond of getting it into every nook and cranny of their shells, so you need to be prepared to give a good soak and cleaning to keep your tort clean. When they urinate, it’s like a small river. Scooping up a good part of the substrate is a good way to clean up, but be prepared to keep replacing that substrate.

That brings us to soaking. Many tortoises do not like to be soaked.  They don’t like the water very much, but to keep them hydrated it’s important to give them a soak at least once a week in warm tepid water (baby bath warm). Do you have a bathtub you don’t mind soaking your tortoise in? If not you will need a large plastic tub that you can haul water in to soak the tortoise in and find a place that you don’t mind dumping the poopy water. Oh, did I mention that most tortoises like to poop in their soak? Not something you want to dump in the kitchen sink, or the bathtub for that matter.

Okay, let’s cover the backyard habitat. If you’re going to have a Sulcata you will have to make a secure outdoor habitat. When the tortoise is under twenty pounds a stockade fence will most likely hold this tortoise in, but beyond that size you will need reinforced fencing as well as a barrier dug a foot or so into the ground. These are burrowing tortoises and can dig, so the entire enclose will need a barrier to prevent the tortoise from escaping. Chain link fencing has been taken down by these tortoises, and they have been known to push their way under them, so not good for enclosures. It’s best to have a solid construction fence that they cannot see through. If they can see the other side, they want to get to the other side. Grass is always greener and all that. Either a cement poured base under the fencing along the perimeter or solid landscape timbers buried under the perimeter of the fencing will be needed. It’s also a good idea to have a 12-18” board run across the gate opening of your yard. Many tortoises have escaped yards through gates that have either been left open or the tortoises have rammed them hard enough to force them open and escaped. I cannot tell you how many times I have been contacted by frantic keepers whose tortoises were missing from their yards.

The yard will also need a good shelter for the tortoise to get out of the elements. A large dog igloo works well, but if you plan on leaving your tortoise outside at night you’ll want something you can close your tortoise into and lock it up so it’s safe from any predators. You’ll also want something you can hang a heater like a ceramic heat emitter in. If you have a larger shed or garage you can provide a heat mat or wall heater for cooler nights.  An outside water source is also necessary. Something large enough for the tortoise to soak in, but not too deep that he can drown in. This water needs to be changed out daily to avoid any mosquito larvae and to make sure there’s no poop left in the water after they soak. Small kiddy pools with one side cut out can work well for larger tortoises, or children’s round snow saucers can work well also. For really small torts a Frisbee flipped upside down also works well. Whatever you use you have to be prepared to clean that water daily. The habitat will need to be planted heavily with weed seeds as well as grass seed and will not be able to fertilized or treated with pesticides. You have to be willing to let any area of your lawn that your tortoise will roam on go organic. If you have any prized plants or shrubs you cannot have them in the Sulcata enclosure, they will be destroyed. Any plants that are not safe, not toxic or edible will have to be removed. There is an extensive Edible Landscaping list on the African Tortoise website www.africantortoise.com which is advisable to visit so you know what plants can stay in the enclosure and which have to go.

Next thing to consider is if you have a dog or a cat. Tortoises do not mix well with dogs or cats. Most people think of dogs and cats with tortoises and the damage done to the tortoises. This is very true. There have been countless cases of tortoises mauled by the family pet that had lived harmoniously with that very tortoise for years until one day when it decided it looked like a great chew toy. However a Sulcata tortoise is a strong tortoise and they have the ability to ram, and ram fast. There have been quite a few cases of broken legs on dogs that were rammed into a wall or cats broken beyond repair from being rammed by a large Sulcata. Care must be taken to keep them away.

Vet bills have to be considered and as the Sulcata grows you will have to consider finding a vet that makes house calls unless you are very strong and have the ability to lift that nearly 200 pound tortoise into the back of your truck, you do have a truck right?

The most important thing to remember is this is a pet that is for a lifetime. A lifetime commitment. They live for over a hundred years with proper care. You will need to leave a Sulcata in your will to another responsible keeper. Are you up to the task? Be honest with yourself. It’s not a responsibility to be taken lightly. Do not fool yourself into thinking you can keep it for a few years and then donate it to a zoo or nature center. They are filled with them. They don’t want any more, and don’t have room for more. Do not consider a Sulcata because you think you ‘might’ move in a year or so to a warmer climate. Wait until you make that move and then get that tortoise. So many get the tortoise and never make that move.

If after reading this you still feel a Sulcata is the right tortoise for you, and you are prepared to make all the necessary changes to your home necessary to keep a Sulcata, then please do your research and be sure you provide that Sulcata with the best care possible. Do not let it end up like so many with that come into rescues like ours with Metabolic Bone Disease and those awful pyramids, some barely able to carry their own weight. If you get a Sulcata be sure to provide it with a good diet, good UV lighting, some humidity, and lots and lots of space.

You’ll have to look at their post to see the photos, I couldn’t get them to load properly here

  • Do you have adequate space to provide for a Sulcata?
  • Are you willing to build a young Sulcata a tortoise table?
  • Are you willing to give up space in your home, shed or garage for a Sulcata?
  • Are you willing/able to afford the heating costs to heat said shed or garage?
  • Are you willing/able to pay the costs of vet bills for a Sulcata?
  • Are you willing to clean up that messy poop on a daily basis?
  • Are you willing to spend the money for nutritious greens/hay during winter when the tortoise cannot graze outside?
  • Are you willing to share your bathtub with a Sulcata for its soaks?
  • Are you willing to sacrifice your beautiful landscaping for a Sulcata?
  • Are you willing to make a lifelong commitment to owning a Sulcata?
  • Do you own your own home?

If you answered no to any of these questions a Sulcata is not the pet for you!

©2008 Turtle Rescue of Long Island

http://www.turtlerescues.org

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