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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 itís 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 Sulcataís  take the lead on those that come in here in the worst shape for  reasons of poor husbandry and the excuse is almost always ďThe tortoise is getting too big.Ē Letís 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 thatís 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 itís 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 itís 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. Letís 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  



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 youíll 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 is a great addition to some greens for a tortoise that does not have access to outside grazing.  

Iíve 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. Itís a cruel world out there and once those babies hatch in nature they fend for themselves. They donít have us tortoise keepers hovering over them cutting their greens and making sure their food is soft. Personally I donít 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 itís 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 itís size to make a soft substrate. Alone itís 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.  Donít let your tortoise become a victim of dehydration and bladder stones as this one did:

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 thatís what they do. Give them ample space in captivity to do the same. Donít stick them in a glass tank. Envision yourself living in a small closet. Would you like that? Weíll throw you food daily and maybe change your water. No, you wouldnít 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 harmís way. His environment should be large but secure from predators if it is outside be sure it is escape proof. Sulcataís dig and dig fast and many do escape. Donít leave a gate open and if you have children make sure they donít 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 canít get out. You can step over the board, the tortoise canít. For some good ideas of habitats go to our enclosure gallery.  

When a tortoise is kept indoors it is imperative that it have UVB lighting. You cannot skimp in this area at all. Itís essential to their health and well being. Just like we need sunshine to process D3, so do tortoises. Itís 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 tortoiseís 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  -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 donít want more to come in looking like these. 

 Kept in a glass tank, no substrate, no uvb, poor diet.
Overall poor husbandry.
Overall poor husbandry.
Fed dog food for at least seven years.

Sulcata MBD movie
Please don't let this happen to your new Sulcata . (Click here to view movie)
This was a very small, young Sulcata that was brought in that was found by the persons grandchildren. Back legs barely moved so suspected impaction but died before we could get it to vet for x-ray. The shell was so soft and pyramided it certainly was not given any good care at all in it's short lived life. Whoever had this tortoise had no right to keep such a magnificent tortoise and neglect it so terribly. It died a slow terrible death. Shame on those that do this to these tortoises.

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 canít even hold itís own weight on itís legs because itís so weak from poor nutrition and just overall poor care, all because itís owner didnít take the time or just didnít care enough to give the tortoise the nutrition and environment it needed . Donít let your tortoise fall victim to neglect like these have. Itís 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 youíre not up to the challenge a Sulcata is not for you. If you think you can take one and keep it until itís 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 Iím afraid at the rate we are getting them in we are going to have to impose that fee once again. We just canít 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 youíre 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.

sulcata       sulcata    

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:

Sulcata Information:

Hay, Lighting, Etc.:  

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**


*  (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species)


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