The Sulcata Tortoise (Geochelone sulcata)
The Sulcata Tortoise (Geochelone sulcata), also known as the African Spur Tortoise, is popular and easily obtained tortoise species that recently has become readily available to the pet industry. The are, especially when captive born, a docile species that exhibits a lot of character traits, which give them a unique personality. Prospective pet owners should first take the time to better familiarize themselves with this species, before seriously considering them as a pet.
Sulcata Tortoises (Geochelone sulcata), can be found in the savannahs of Africa, ranging throughout the sub-Sahara regions of countries including Sudan, Ethiopia, Niger, and Mali. They self-regulate body temperature by basking and escaping from the high temperatures in burrows. They are fantastic burrowing animals and are frequently referred to as little “bulldozers”. In their natural habitat, Sulcata tortoises are grazing animals. With a little research, proper preparation, and dedication to the animal’s well being, keeping a Sulcata can be very rewarding, and a bond between keeper and animal occurs in a short time. As with any animal, it is important for the prospective keeper to research the place from where their animals are supplied. The reptile industry has many purveyors which value the dollar, more than they value the life of the animals that they sale. Many suppliers keep their animals in over-crowded “warehouses” where the animals literally have no room. Animals are often left to crawl in their own feces, and one may frequently find dead animals housed with live ones due to neglect in care. When obtaining a Sulcata tortoise, or any reptile, it is important to realize that animals kept in naturalistic habitats will be in better physical, and mental health. Asking simple questions when you are purchasing your animal can make a difference in the overall conservation of tortoises and other reptiles.
Size and Longevity:
The Sulcata Tortoise (Geochelone sulcata) ranks as the world’s third largest tortoise species, being surpassed only by the huge Galapagos and Aldabras Tortoise. It is important to make sure that you are able to properly care for your tortoise as it grows. Hatchling Sulcata tortoises may be less than three inches in length, but as adults these giants can reach weights of up to 200 lbs. Size is not the only determining factor that should be taken into account before purchasing a Sulcata tortoise. Tortoises are among the longest living animals in the animal kingdom. It has been estimated that Tortoises may live to be over 150 years of age. A couple of centuries ago, tortoises were often carried on board ships. Explorers not only wanted an emergency food source, but they also wanted items that might be traded or given as gifts, should they have need of it. The prince of Tonga was given the gift of a tortoise in the late 1700’s. The tortoise was kept on the island, and cared for by the royal family, until its death, which was well into the 20th century. Not everybody has the benefit of a royal family, but having a plan in effect, to insure that your tortoise will be cared for is the responsible thing to do. With the large size that adults may reach, it stands to reason that there is also a great strength possessed by the tortoise. It is important as your tortoise grows that the habitat it lives in should be strong enough to hold it, as well as keeping it from burrowing out of it.
Habitat/ Caging Requirements:
Perhaps the greatest challenge with keeping Sulcata tortoises is the caging requirements. When young, Sulcata tortoises are somewhat easily housed, but as adults the challenges grow considerably. Tortoises do not necessarily grow too quickly, so there will be time to get the cage together. Even though there is time to spare, it should be recognized prior to your tortoise purchase. One common mistake among keepers is the confusion between aquatic turtles and land tortoises. Sulcata tortoises cannot swim, attempting to supply them with an aquatic habitat, or even an accessible water dish that is too deep, may lead to premature death by drowning. As with other animal species, one should be aware that housing males together could eventually lead to territorial aggressiveness, especially after sexual maturity is reached. Tortoises as a rule should not be housed in glass aquariums. Aquariums are designed for fish; even glass terrariums should be avoided. Glass causes un-natural accumulation of stale air, as well as concentration of light that works against the promotion of good health. When young, Sulcata tortoises may be housed in a variety of ways; perhaps one of the best habitats for young tortoises is the Reptarium by Apogee. The Reptarium is an enclosure that is constructed of a nylon mesh cage, which is supported by a frame constructed of dishwasher safe PVC. The Reptarium is much easier to thoroughly clean than other habitats. The nylon mesh cover can be placed in the washing machine, while the frame is washing in the dishwasher. Not only is this more convenient, it also helps to better eliminate parasites when cleaned regularly. Being able to regularly receive natural sunlight is vital to the health of the Sulcata tortoise. The design of the Reptarium allows safe access to natural sunlight, while providing the circulation of fresh air.
The floor covering of the enclosure (also called substrate) should provide absorption of the tortoises waste, yet be easily cleaned. There are a number of good substrates that are ideal for tortoises. When young, and for purposes of economy, newspaper may be used as long as it is changed when soiled. Repti-cal and other similar substrates are a good choice, and many keepers seem to have success with aspen shavings. Cedar and pine products should be avoided, as they have been known to cause serious health issues and even death with many reptiles, including tortoises. There are also a number of soil type substrates that are specially formulated for reptiles. Many keepers also use indoor/ outdoor carpeting. Carpeting is fine; provided that the keeper is diligent about keeping it clean from waste.
As your tortoise grows you will need to judge when to move your tortoise into an adult sized enclosure. As an adult a Sulcata tortoise will need at least a small yard in which to roam. This yard should have a sturdy fence which is tall enough to prevent escape, and sturdy enough that it is not easily pushed over. Chain-link type fences should be avoided as they may cause injury to your tortoise. Fences should also extend below the surface far enough to prevent the tortoise from burrowing out. Within the enclosure should be included a shady area, for your tortoise to self regulate its body temperature. It is important to insure that your tortoise is only housed in yard type enclosures if the outside temperature is within the temperature requirements detailed under the Temperature and Humidity heading. The outdoor enclosure should contain a water dish along with grassy areas in which to graze. As with any other outdoor kept pet, a shelter should be provided so that your tortoise can escape temperature extremes, as well as other weather conditions such as rain. Many keepers use a doghouse for the outdoor enclosure. Inside the doghouse should be heated, and be easily cleaned. The most important item for the shelter should be that no moisture be accumulated or allowed to penetrate the shelter from the outside weather conditions. The shelter should be large enough as to allow a temperature gradient, once again allowing self regulation of body temperature. Your tortoise should naturally enter the shelter at night when temperatures start to drop, but this should never be assumed. Placing the tortoise into the shelter will allow it to stay warm at night. The yard habitat should be free from pesticides, pest, fertilizers, and loose sand. Clean fresh water should be provided in a dish at all times.
Temperature and Humidity:
Ideal temperature is vital to your tortoise’s health and well-being. The temperature within the tortoise’s habitat should be gradient, but yet still maintain adequate temperatures. Ideal gradient temperature should be between 72 and 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Basking areas should be provided at slightly higher temperatures. It is important that you do not allow your Sulcata tortoise to be exposed to cooler temperatures. Excessive moisture and humidity will lead to health problems, which could lead to death. There are a variety of ways to provide proper temperature in the shelter as well as in the enclosure. Lighting, and ceramic heat emitters are the best choices. Young tortoises can benefit from heat mats/ strips placed under the habitat when kept indoors.
Soaking and Lighting:
Approximately once a week your tortoise should be allowed to soak in water. The water should be within between 72 and 80 degrees. The water should be no deeper than to the bottom edge of the tortoise’s carapace. The turtle should be allowed to soak for approximately ½ hour. As your tortoise grows larger, it may become necessary to construct a special area to soak your tortoise in.
The health of your tortoise depends on a number of factors including proper lighting. Natural sunlight is always an economical choice and more beneficial as well. Proper lighting indoors require the best possible simulation of natural sunlight. There are a number of lamps including fluorescent that contain healthy levels of UVA and UVB light, which plays a key role in your tortoises development and overall health.
Feeding and Nutrition:
The Sulcata tortoise should receive a vegetarian diet that is high in protein. Feeding your tortoise too much protein, even though your tortoise will eat pretty much everything, is very damaging to its health and may cause premature death. Protein containing foods such as beans, peas, and other high protein foods can cause kidney failure. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale can lead to thyroid gland problems. High fiber, and minerals, and low fat oils and protein will help to insure a long life for your tortoise. There are a number of commercially available tortoise diets that are available, and have been scientifically formulated to be nutritionally balanced for optimal tortoise health. Giving your tortoise a variable diet will help to simulate the diet that a Sulcata would have in its natural home giving it all of the vitamins and minerals that it requires. The best diet for the Sulcata is one of a mixture of grasses including buffalo grass, Bermuda grass, blue grass, rye grass, wheat grass, and hay. These grasses should comprise approximately ¾ of the tortoises diet. Alfalfa is a poor choice and should be avoided. Supplementing the grass diet with weeds and natural occurring flowers such as chickweed, thistle, petunia, hibiscus, dandelion, ganzania, pansies, leeks, rose petals, and forget-me-nots. Sulcata tortoises will eat a number of items available at your local grocery store as well. These items should only be given in moderation, and should be washed and rinsed thoroughly prior to consumption. A few of these items include collard greens, mustard greens, carrot slivers, romaine lettuce (never iceberg) and pumpkin.
If a careful diet is administered with careful attention to the above guidelines, the event of needing to provide your tortoise with supplements is minimal. Tortoises do require a healthy intake of calcium throughout all stages of their development. It may become necessary to give calcium supplement, which come in powdered form, dusted onto their food. Talking to a qualified veterinarian and scheduling routine checkups, can help you to be aware of any special needs that your tortoise may have.
Tortoise Health Concerns and Sexing:
As with any other pet, it is important to have a knowledgeable veterinarian (DVM), who is experienced in herpafauna medicine. Even properly cared for animals may at times become ill, and tortoises are no exception. Signs and symptoms of illness vary, but are not unlike other animals. Loss of appetite, and cold like symptoms are just a couple of examples. As with other reptiles, (especially those coming from arid regions of the world) tortoises are susceptible to respiratory infections. Consult with your veterinarian immediately if you suspect anything is wrong. Your veterinarian can also help you in a variety of other areas including dietary, as well as any questions you may have about any aspect of care of your tortoise. Your veterinarian can also establish the sex of your tortoise. Especially when young, sexing a tortoise can be uncertain. As a general rule, males are somewhat larger than females, and have a noticeably longer tail, when compared to the female of the same species.
Responsible Keeping and Conservation:
It is the responsibility of the keeper to educate themselves in all viable aspects of Sulcata Tortoise care, prior to receiving their new companion. The more one learns of the environment from where there pet comes from, and the life that Sulcata tortoises live, the better equipped one will be in providing a long and healthy life for the tortoise. Conservation is everybody’s responsibility and every person should do his or her part to contribute to it. This can begin with responsible pet ownership. Through diligent effort we can reach better conservation results through educating responsible pet owners.
Care Sheet Written By:
Kevin J. Cash