Sulcata Tortoise

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Species group:

Other common names: African Spurred Tortoise; African Spurred-thighed Tortoise; Ivory African Spurred Tortoise; Grooved Tortoise; Tortue Sillonnée; Tortuga Con Púas

Scientific name: Geochelone sulcata

The basics:
Exceeded in size only by the Galapagos and Aldabra Tortoises, this personable giant is certainly an impressive creature. But very few people are able to meet its needs, failing to realize that the cute 2 ½ inch-long hatchling they have purchased may weigh over 60 pounds within 5 years…and can double that size in time! As a result, tortoise rescue centers are filled with unwanted pets…best to leave these behemoths to folks who can house them outdoors year-round in half-acre enclosures.

The Sulcata Tortoise is found along the southern border of Africa’s Sahara Desert, from Ethiopia and Sudan west through Chad, Niger, and Mali to southern Mauritania and Senegal. They are limited to arid, open habitats such as desert fringes, savannas and lightly-wooded grasslands.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the wild population of Geochelone sulcata is classified as "vulnerable" due to loss of habitat and competition for food with livestock.

Appearance / health:
The domed, brown carapace is slightly flattened on top and may reach 2 ½ feet in length. In addition to their massive length and weight – to 200 pounds, with a record of 240 pounds – Sulcata Tortoises are distinguished by the thick, hardened scales that cover the front legs. In large specimens, these serve to thwart attacks by most any predator.

Well-cared-for Sulcata Tortoises are quite hardy, with captive longevities approaching 70 years. Metabolic bone disease is common in animals that are not provided with ample calcium and/or UVB exposure. Females without access to a suitable nesting site may retain their eggs. Respiratory tract infections and ear abscesses are common in damp habitats, or in very dry conditions if a moist retreat is not available. The lack of a moist retreat may also result in irregular shell formation, usually in the form of lumps, among hatchlings. Fiber-poor diets cause digestive disorders, and a diet rich in fruit will lead to colic-like ailments. Other possible problems to be aware of include swollen eyes (Vitamin A deficiency), overgrown beaks, and obesity.

Behavior / temperament:
Sulcata Tortoises take very well to captivity and quickly learn to “beg’ for food when their owners appear. They are alert and aware of their surroundings, and feed readily from the hand. Like most turtles, they dislike being handled and carried about. Some keepers have reported aggression from nesting females. Hands trapped between the front legs and shells of large specimens may be severely injured or broken.

Large individuals are nearly impossible to house indoors, other than in a heated barn-type building. They do best in locales that allow for outdoor housing year-round. Adults require a pen measuring at least 20 x 12 feet, but preferably much larger, along with a large sheltered sleeping area and a room-sized indoor shelter. Enclosure walls should be solid and at least 3-4 feet in height, and extend to a similar depth below-ground. See-through fencing and such should not be used, or the tortoise will continually attempt to escape. Hatchlings may be started-out in large plastic storage boxes or cattle troughs; glass aquariums are unsuitable. Drinking water and water for soaking should be available, young animals should also be soaked in a tub of shallow water for 15-20 minutes, 1-2 x weekly.

A mix of sand and soil is the best substrate; cypress mulch can be used for hatchlings housed indoors as well. The substrate should be of a depth that allows the tortoise to create a shallow depression for night-time use.

Exposure to UVB light is essential. Mercury vapor bulbs broadcast UVB over greater distances than do florescent models, and provide beneficial UVA radiation as well. Temperatures should range from 70-85 F, with a basking site of 100 F. Provide your pet with the largest home possible, so that a thermal gradient (areas of different temperatures) can be established. Thermal gradients, critical to good health, allow turtles to regulate their body temperature by moving between hot and cooler areas.

Females and youngsters often co-exist, but must be watched as dominance hierarchies develop. Males fight viciously, and usually harass females with near-constant mating attempts.

Sulcata Tortoises consume a diet that is high in fiber and calcium and low in protein and fat. In the wild, they feed almost exclusively on grasses, herbaceous plants and flowers, with fruit only sporadically available. High protein foods such as beans and dog food should be strictly avoided. Fruit is not necessary, although a few berries can be given as a weekly treat during the summer.

Native Plants

In the warmer months, native grasses, weeds, and flowers should, if possible, comprise the bulk of your tortoises diet (learn to identify toxic species). The following are readily accepted by most individuals:

Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum),

Dandelion (Taraxacum spp.)

Hawkweeds (Pictis spp.)

Clovers (Trifolium spp.)

Cat's ears (Hypochoeris spp.)

Mallows (Malva spp.)

Sedums (Sedum spp.)

Chickweed (Stelaria media)

Hedge mustard (Sisymbrium sp.)

Bramble (Rubus fruticosus)

Plantains (Plantago spp.)

The balance of the diet should include seasonally available greens such as kale, endive, Swiss chard, mustard/collard greens, and romaine. Other produce can be added as available, but avoid spinach and iceberg lettuce, and use bok-choy sparingly. Small amounts of yam and carrot can be provided once weekly. Commercial grassland tortoise diets may be added to your pet’s salad, but should not be used as a mainstay.

Given this species’ unusually-high need calcium needs, most meals should be powdered with a calcium source. Vitamin/mineral supplements should be used 2-3 times each week. A calcium block or cuttlebone may be left in the terrarium for “as needed” use (not all individuals will consume calcium in this form).

Mature males may be distinguished from females by their longer, thicker tails and concave plastrons. Breeding usually occurs without the need for temperature manipulation, although it most commonly occurs as temperatures begin to drop or a rainy period begins. Pairs must be watched closely, as males may injure non-receptive females, or receptive females in small enclosures, by ramming their shells.

Gravid (egg-bearing) females usually become restless 6-10 weeks after mating, and may refuse food at this time. If the home enclosure is not suitable for nesting, they should be removed to a large enclosure (i.e. 5x the length and width of the turtle) provisioned with at least 24 inches of slightly moist soil and sand. Gravid females that do not nest should be seen by a veterinarian as egg retention invariably leads to a fatal infection (egg peritonitis). It is important to note that females may develop eggs even if unmated, and may produce 3-5 clutches each year; a single mating may result in fertile clutches years later. The 12-50+ eggs may be incubated in a mix of 2 parts vermiculite to 1 part water (by weight) at 82-86 F for 90-130 days; however, eggs incubated in this manner have also taken up to 200 days to hatch.

Written by Frank Indiviglio


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