The Sizable Sulcata

The African spurred tortoise, or the sulcata, can make for a fantastic pet, in a colossal way, but pet owners need to be forewarned and forearmed with all the information they will need to care for these immense creatures.


A quarter century ago I was visiting a friend who imported and wholesaled exotics. It was the second time I had been to his warehouse, and it struck me, upon entering his shop, that things were rearranged since my previous visit. In the center of the facility, where normally one used to find tiers of reptile tanks, there was a large corral. Within the corral were 20 of the largest tortoises I had seen outside of zoos. 

It was one of the first importations of Geochelone sulcata, the African spurred tortoise. I was entranced. 

After some fun romping with the massive beasts, it was on to business: I was there to buy. About a half-hour later, my friend informed me that, in the warmth of the afternoon, he allowed the tortoises a little legroom and exercise, and he opened the pen. As the tortoises roamed the aisles, I went about my business. 

A little while later, I was busy looking at rows of spiders and other arachnids, which were located on some shelves above the facility’s veggie bin. Suddenly, I felt a forceful shove against my ankle. One of the tortoises, which had been in the facility for less than a few weeks, had figured out a) where the veggies were kept, b) that humans were capable of accessing them, and c) that he could physically implore me to hand it over.
And therein lies the charm of the sulcata. They are smart, bold and interactive, more so than any other tortoise species with which I have worked. Whereas many reptiles seem to have personalities primarily determined by their species, sulcatas can be wildly individual. I have had specimens that were politely friendly, and others who were, well, big jerks. One big boy I used to have determined that I was, in fact, his competition for females and would fiercely chase me around the shop, nipping at my ankles and butting my feet. I had one big girl whose sole mission in life was to upend every piece of furniture she came across, and she had some quite stunning successes. 

Of course, the big negative with them as pets is their size: adults are capable of reaching nearly three feet in length and 150 pounds or more. They are the largest mainland tortoises in the world. Because of that size, they are difficult at best for pet owners to house and maintain. They are, of necessity, destined to be outdoor pets, and their need for warmth precludes their pet worthiness to those in the northern half of the county. 

They are easy and prolific breeders, and thus have become a relatively inexpensive and omnipresent inhabitant of pet shops. So, for those of you who feel you can carry and comfortably sell such a behemoth, let’s talk about care. 

Sulcatas are native to a huge crescent of scrub terrain just south of the Sahara desert. That’s your cue for setting them up: dry and hot. They like a cool end of the cage at 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and a hot end ranging from 90 to a little over 100 degrees. As they get most of their water from their food, no water bowl is needed. Babies and juveniles enjoy a soak in shallow, tepid water every morning, allowing them both drink and toilet privileges, all in one fell swoop. A 10.0 UV light is needed as well. While many people assume that sand would be the best substrate, I find that it can act as an irritant to both their skin and eyes, as well as having the potential to block their bowels. I prefer pine or aspen bedding, but other substrates, like reconstituted newspaper, will work as well. 

In the wild, they are almost exclusively grass eaters. I like to provide them with some hay, as well as a variety of leafy greens, with about a 10 percent component of vegetables and fruits. This can be supplemented with prepared chows, and a calcium/vitamin mix should always be used. As the tortoises grow, owners will encounter the difficulty of keeping up with the volume of food they demand. Most of us have solved this by befriending the produce manager at a local market, who is often happy to set aside veggies no longer deemed human-worthy.

Hatchlings do well starting out in a 10-gallon tank, but they will need a bigger enclosure surprisingly quickly. Because they get so large, their growth rate is impressive, often doubling in size yearly. They grow geometrically rather than arithmetically. In other words, the more they eat, the more they grow, and the more they grow, the more they eat. Thus, if you charted a tortoise’s growth, the line would not go straight, but would rather curve swiftly upward. As soon as a baby tortoise is housed, it’s time to think about new housing. At about a foot and a half in length, they will be ready for an outdoor pen. 

Outdoor enclosures also need some thought and planning. Sulcatas are impressive burrowers, and so any outdoor pen will need to have a sunken bottom through which these living entrenching tools cannot pass. Years ago, the Honolulu Zoo had quite a problem as they neglected to notice that their sulcata colony had built itself a warren under the tortoise building. They caught the problem in time, but just a little more digging might have totaled the entire building. 

Sulcatas need shade as well as sun so that they can modify their body heat. Care must also be taken to ensure against access to plant life that might be toxic. Finally, even very large tortoises are subject to attack from rats, raccoons, opossums, dogs and cats. On the other hand, a large well-trained dog can be a tortoise’s best friend, as it will tend to keep the yard clear of intruders. Still, the pen should be sturdy and well constructed to prevent access of other animals. 

I have one more cool sulcata story for you: I have another friend who breeds them and keeps his herd in his back yard in such a way that they have access to the back door. Every morning and evening he feeds them, precisely at 9 a.m. and again at 5 p.m. The tortoises have learned the routine, and gather around the back door awaiting their grub. One afternoon, he noticed them at the back door—an hour early. He pondered this for a moment, and then it dawned on him. The night before, the clock was set back. He was fooled by daylight savings time; they were not. 

I think it behooves those who sell small sulcatas to follow the same rule that I apply to selling large pythons and monitors, and even red-eared sliders: have an adult on hand so that people have a realistic idea of what to expect. Stores that sell baby animals without giving the customer any concept of what the future holds are a black mark on all of us in the business. 

I sell a lot of hatchlings to teachers for classrooms. They make terrific classroom pets, and the teachers have a rather unique way of dealing with the size issue. As the tortoises get too large for the class, the teachers bring them back to me and trade them in for a newer model. I am happy to have the larger animals back, as the females go into the breeding group, and the males will make great pets for those who like instant gratification.

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S. 


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