The Sulcatta Problem

Centrochelys sulcata stand in row isolated on white background.


Undeniably, the African Spurred Tortoise (Geochelone sulcatta) is the most popular pet tortoise in the U.S., and has been for some time. In fact, it has received such recognition that its scientific name has engendered a new one: the Sulcatta. Unfortunately, all that prestige is followed closely by a few problems.


First, let’s talk more about their popularity. For me, their central appeal is their absolute fearlessness. Even as hatchlings, they seem to be utterly guileless and self assured. Touch the face of almost any chelonian, and their first reaction is to flinch and retreat into their shell. With Sulcattas, you can almost hear them say, "Is that all ya got?"


Secondly, they are smart beasts. If one person feeds them, they quickly learn the face of that person; if they are fed at a specific time of day, they figure out (with some precision) when that time is.


I have a friend who keeps Sulcattas in his backyard. Every day, they gather at the back door precisely at 10 a.m. for lunch. One day, he noticed the herd had congregated an hour early. For a minute, he didn’t understand why that was… until it dawned on him that daylight savings time went into effect the night before!


Decades ago, when they were first imported into the U.S. for the pet trade, I was visiting a wholesaler who had established a pen for a dozen adults in the center of the shop. Every day, he let them out to wander the floor for a few hours.


One day, they were out for a stroll while I was inspecting the racks of spiders, which were located directly over the trough where the shop kept the veggies to be processed for feed. As I carefully examined the tarantulas, I felt an insistent nudge at my ankle. I looked down to see one of the tortoises looking eye to eye with me, then at the bin, then back at me. This tortoise, only in captivity for two months, had figured out where the food was, that this creature (me) had access to it and could thus provide it to him. And he was asking–nay, demanding!–that I feed him.


These animals are fearless, smart and interactive, with personalities way beyond the capabilities of any other tortoise I’m familiar with.


Sulcattas are also the warhorses of the turtle world, in terms of husbandry. They want enough space to roam, as grazers always do. A 10-gal. tank will house a hatchling well for the first year or two. High heat is a must, with a cool end of 80 degrees and a hot point somewhere around 100 degrees. A 10.0 UVB light should extend across the entirety of the tank.


This is a grassland tortoise, so it should be fed a wide range of greens, especially dark-leaved lettuces, paired with a smattering of fruit and veggies. Avoid spinach and kale, and ALWAYS sprinkle vitamins and calcium on everything they are offered. Any number of beddings work: pine or aspen shavings, reconstituted newspaper products, like Care-Fresh, or dry barks. Sulcattas get 95 percent of their water from what they eat, but I soak hatchlings in shallow, lukewarm water every morning for about 15 minutes. They drink in one end and poop out the other, thus reducing your cage cleaning time. Older tortoises can soak on a gradually reduced schedule.


They are also beautiful and, as babies, cute as buttons. That’s a lot of upside. So what’s the downside?


Size. Sulcattas are the largest mainland tortoise in the world, getting close to 3 ft. in length and weighing close to 175 lbs. My ex-partner, who has bred them for many years, invested in a forklift to be able to move them around. That’s some serious tortoise, and they get to that size with alarming speed. I currently have a five-year-old named Dusty who is already close to 50 lbs. and shows no signs of slowing down.


Unfortunately, many unscrupulous shops will sell hatchlings and juveniles with absolutely no warning as to what customers should expect. That is putting the almighty dollar ahead of both the animal’s welfare and the customer’s long-term interests, and I sincerely hope that you are not one of those dealers.


We always try to have a live example of an adult on hand, along with a mention of the growth pace one might expect. We also always try to have reasonable alternatives on hand in the form of Greek, Russian and Marginated tortoises, which are much more expensive but considerably easier to manage.


While I have not had a problem rehoming larger adults so far, I can easily see that there will be a point when the supply of large tortoises completely outstrips the demand. The startling drop in wholesale prices for hatchlings is the first sign I’ve seen that their popularity is waning. In a year where prices for nearly everything has increased by huge margins, the price for hatchlings has dropped precipitously. This is a tortoise that breeds readily and with little difficulty, putting us at a point where they are almost flooding the market.


We haven’t reached that tipping point yet, but it behooves us in this industry to see it coming and take appropriate steps. Step No. 1 is to never sell these animals without having the customer be acutely aware of what the future holds for them and their pet. If they don’t have the physical capability to keep a large tortoise outdoors with a heated retreat into the indefinite future, this is not the tortoise for them. If they cannot provide an enclosure that can keep out potential predators, such as raccoons, opossums, coyotes, etc., this is not the tortoise for them. If they cannot build an enclosure that will prevent the tortoise from burrowing out, this is not the tortoise for them.


It doesn’t help that Sulcattas, for many years already the least expensive tortoise on the market, are about to become even cheaper. If you decide to carry them, you should always have the alternatives on hand. They may be more expensive, but I always like to point out that if you amortize the expense over the tortoise’s expected lifespan (it will likely outlive the family’s adults, and possibly the children), even expensive ones are about the most reasonable pets on the market.


Step No. 3 is to, and I can’t believe I am about to write these words, discourage breeding. We really do have a surfeit of these animals, and if your clients want to breed reptiles, there are so many other animals more deserving of their attention, as a matter of good ecology and investment. I want to see more Mediterranean tortoises, and box turtles, and red-foots, and yellow-foots, and on and on, available as captive bred hatchlings. Let’s all work on that.  PB


Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.