The Sulcata


Centrochelys (Geochelone) sulcata
African Spurred Tortoises



One of the most important aspects of keeping a Sulcata is being sure that you actually have one. Common names can be misleading. Sulcata are  often sold as "spur thigh" tortoises or "African spur thigh" tortoises. This name is usually reserved for a much smaller north African Testudo species....Testudo graeca .

In the photo section there are many pictures of G. sulcata for comparison. At World Chelonian Trust you can get information on T. gracea



C. sulcata
is a large species (up to 2.5 feet long and over 200 lbs.) from the Sub-Saharan area of Africa. Although this is a very arid region, sulcatas  requires constant access to water. In the wild they avoid dehydration by digging long tunnels. They are very well adapted to an arid environment.

adult and hatchling comparrison
        Comparison between a 19 year old 150 pound adult and a hatchling

When small they can be kept in large indoor pens. However, after a few years they will out grow most indoor accommodations. These powerful animals have been reported to bulldoze through sheet rock and patio doors.

They do well in outdoor pens in warmer states. But even here in South Carolina they require a heated house. A Rubbermaid bicycle shed works great. In cooler climates they will need to be brought in when the temps drop below 60°F. Not any easy chore with a 200 lb tort.


Diet & Care

Care for sulcata and leopard tortoises are essentially the same. However, due to size differences and aggression they shouldn't' be housed together.

The diet should be at least 70% grasses and hay. Not surprisingly, given its preference for grassland habitats the Sulcata grazes, extensively upon mixed grasses weeds, and flowers. It also favors the fruit and pads of the prickly pear (Opuntia sp.), succulents and thistles. "Meat" foods should never be given to Sulcata because it can lead to excessive growth, high blood-urea levels, kidney/liver problems, and bladder stones. 

In captivity it is a common error to feed too much wet food such as lettuce, tomatoes and fruit when in reality this tortoise requires a coarse, high fiber diet. The sugar content of fruit will also alter the pH of the gut which results in a die off of the normal gut flora. Feeding excessive fruit or soft foods frequently leads to repeated flagellate (a type of parasite) and other gut problems such as colic, most probably as a result of increased gut motility.

 More information can be found in the diet  section of this site.

Due to their prodigious growth rate, their demand for calcium and mineral trace elements is high.  It's usually recommended that  calcium/D3 supplement be provided daily, but this can lead to excessive supplementation. Excessive amounts do not just flush from the tortoises system, but can and do lead to malabsorption of essential fatty acids and other deficiencies such as iron, zinc, iodine, cooper. It  can also cause bladder stones. Calcium has a very narrow safe range of intake. Excessive amounts of calcium can also lead to hypercalcemia and soft bones.  The addition of D3 can be toxic and lead to hypercalcemia as well.

In a captive environment, particularly in cooler parts of the US where outdoor grazing cannot be provided on a year round basis, providing a "natural" grasses and weeds are not always in option.  There are some excellent supplemental diets available today that can be used when reliance on feeding store bought produce and these products eliminate the need to supplement with the commonly used powder forms of Calcium/D3.   

Water Requirements

Unfortunately, many believe that tortoises naturally acquire almost all of their fluid requirements from its food and that therefore they do not require additional drinking water. Sulcata are indeed adapted to a semi-arid environment and its system of eliminating waste via uric acid rather than via urea is clear evidence of this. Uric acid can be eliminated using substantial lower levels of water wastage than can systems based on urea, such as those of mammals.  Therefore, tortoises, such as Sulcata, eliminate nitrogenous waste products with far greater water conservation. Its behavior is also programmed to reflect this need not to waste precious water.

The semi-solid, white deposits are expelled urates. Tortoises are programmed not to use water in the bladder and to eliminate urates only if replenishment is available. Depriving the tortoise of water will result in urates being accumulated  and quite often to dangerous levels.  During a rain tortoises will often drink and urinate simultaneously. This behavior can be stimulated in hot weather by lightly spraying the tortoise with a garden hose. In the wild, during hot and rain-free summers, aestivation or semi-aestivation occurs. There are several factors that will lead to aestivation. Lack of food and environmental water are major factors, as is temperature. During aestivation periods tortoises maintain themselves below ground, in burrows which provide a stable microclimate. In these burrows temperatures are much lower than those above ground and the relative humidity is very much higher. Combined with reduced activity, these factors result in a vastly reduced rate of fluid loss via exhalation and little or no need to urinate and prevent dehydration. In a captive situation, many tortoises are not provided with a microclimate and easily become dehydrated, especially when water is not provided for drinking.