African Sulcata Tortoise

a close up of an African Sulcata Tortoise

Let’s face it, most people don’t have the patience to deal with a pet tortoise. They’re messy, they’re slow, and if you’re not careful they can kill your dog or cat. They’re also delicate and dangerous. So, what’s a busy professional to do? Well, there’s no better candidate than the African Sulcata Tortoise. These gentle giants are hardy and docile, and they can live for more than 50 years if given the proper care.

African Sulcata Tortoises are native to the Sahara Desert in Africa, and are one of the largest land tortoises in existence. They are herbivores, meaning they only eat plants and are slow moving animals that grow up to 3 feet long. They are highly adaptable and can live in a wide range of habitats, from dry desert to wet grasslands. But if you want them for a family pet you’ll need space for them to move around.

While the African Sulcata Tortoises can be great pets, most families don’t realize how much space they need to house them. They grow to almost 3 feet long, so a small 10’ x 10’ pen just isn’t going to cut it. They don’t need too much else after you get their home set up, so if you have the space for them they can be great for your family!

They are not aggressive towards people, and will usually allow their human owner to handle them. African Sulcata Turtles are very calm and laid back, and will accept their owner as part of their environment. They are also very easy to care for. They require little food, and will eat just about anything you give them.

African Sulcata Tortoise Information

  • Average Length: 24 to 30 inches
  • Average Weight: 80 to 110 pounds
  • Skin Appearance: Thick skin with bony plates on their shell
  • Skin Colors: Golden brown to sand color
  • Grooming Needs: Low
  • Shedding: Every few months
  • Sensitive to Touch: No
  • Biting Tendency: No
  • Tolerance to Heat and Cold: No tolerance to cold.
  • Good Pet: Yes
  • Safe with Children: Adult tortoises are too big for children
  • Good with Other Pets: No
  • Suitable to live in an Apartment: No
  • Good for Less Experienced Pet Owners: No
  • Weight Gain: Normal
  • Health Concerns: Respiratory Infections, Metabolic Bone Disease, Shell Rot and Pyramiding.
  • Allergies: None
  • Average Life Span: 50 to 70 years

Physical Appearance of African Sulcata Tortoises

a baby African Sulcata Tortoise

African Sulcata Tortoises are only around 2 inches long when they are born but they can grow up to 30 inches long! These tortoises double their size every 3 years and can weigh up to 110 pounds when fully matured. They are the third-largest land dwelling tortoises in the world.

They have a thick skin that can be one of several neutral colors ranging from golden brown to sand. The upper part of their shell, called the carapace, is brown. The carapace is oval and wide with large scales called scutes. These scutes have growth rings that increase like tree rings as your turtle ages. The scutes darken with age, giving the shell some texture and color variation.

Their front legs are covered with large scales. They have several cone-shaped spurs on their thighs which is why they are sometimes called the Spurred Tortoise. These spurs are thought to help them burrow underground in the wild. They can also act as protection when they retreat into their shell. The spurs on their legs completely hide the turtle’s head when it’s inside its shell.

African Sulcata Tortoises have a moderately sized head with a flat snout. Their upper jaw narrows to a point and then the end has a slight downward hook that is common among turtles. The head is brown with darker shades on their jaws.

Temperament of African Sulcata Tortoises

a picture of an African Sulcata Tortoise walking over rocks

African Sulcata Tortoises spend most of their time grazing and burrowing. If the temperature gets too hot they generally like to find a hiding spot to escape the heat. They will sometimes rub their saliva on their forearms to cool themselves.

They are most active during dusk and dawn. Young tortoises tend to be more active than mature tortoises.

Male African Sulcata Tortoises are aggressive with each other. They may hit or try to flip each other to show their dominance. In the wild this is a death sentence for them because they are not able to right themselves once they’re on their back. This is why we recommend that they be housed alone. Females are generally less aggressive than males but it is still unpredictable how they will react to each other.

Some tortoises will enter a state of Brumation in the colder periods. This is like hibernation, but for reptiles, and lasts much less time than hibernation does for mammals. African Sulcata Tortoises DO NOT DO THIS. We will list their ideal habitat conditions later in the article. If your tortoise gets too cold and refuses to eat or move this is NOT NORMAL and they must be warmed up quickly or they will die.

African Sulcata Tortoises do not like being handled. Both young and older tortoises can get stressed with frequent handling.

Their Compatibility with Children

an African Sulcata Tortoise hatchling just emerging from their shell

Children may handle the tortoises gently when the African Sulcata Tortoises are young. The handling should not be frequent because it can stress the tortoise. Teach your children how to handle the tortoise. Always have an adult supervise the children while they are handling them because children may accidentally drop or do things that can cause them stress.

Adult tortoises get very big, and can sometimes become aggressive for a number of reasons. It’s best to only have children around adult tortoises with adult supervision especially if they are feeding them. Most of the times that they’ll bite you will be unintentional and happen while feeding them.

Always have your children wash their hands after handling the tortoise. This is because most tortoises are carriers of infectious bacteria like Salmonella which can cause diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain in humans. Washing their hands should prevent your children from contracting bacterial and fungal diseases from the tortoises. Children below 5 should not handle tortoises because young children are at an increased risk of contracting Salmonella.

Living Space for African Sulcata Tortoises

The best place to keep African Sulcata Tortoises is outdoors. Their large size necessitates them having a large enclosure which will be hard to create indoors. The more space you can give them, the better. Lack of suitable space is the main reason why many families cannot have these animals as pets.

You may house young African Sulcata Tortoises indoors for a few years when you first get them home. A large fish tank can be useful for keeping your young pet, but they will quickly grow too big for such a small home. 

Once they become big, an outdoor enclosure should be set up for them. The enclosure should be large enough for some hiding spots, a basking area and still allow them to move around. It should be properly secured with a fence at least 2 feet tall. A fence that can handle some of the tortoises’ weight without falling apart is needed. It’s not uncommon for them to use their weight to try to crush the fence and escape.

an African Sulcata Tortoise moving down a step

African Sulcata Tortoises love to dig and may try to dig an escape tunnel. By extending the fence 12 inches below the surface you can make it more difficult for them to dig out. They will also dig to escape the hot summer heat. Usually they will not dig more than about 30 inches, but in the wild they have dug holes 10 feet into the ground!

While setting up their enclosure, remember not to create areas that they can use to climb. Sulcata Tortoises like to climb and may accidentally tip over trying to climb on something.

If you live where the temperature drops below 63 degrees, your tortoise will need a heated enclosure to protect them from the cold. As mentioned before they need hiding or shaded spots to keep from overheating. A heated enclosure is really just another hiding spot for them.

African Sulcata Tortoises do need some shade. If the enclosure you’ve set up does not include any natural shaded spots, umbrellas or a canopy work well to block the sun. Sulcata Tortoises are ravenous vegetarians, and a bush giving them shade today might be a meal for them tomorrow.  In addition to having a nice shaded spot for them, the ground is often cooler 12 inches below the surface. If there is a particular place that you want them to rest at you may want to dig them a hole while setting everything up.

Without a hiding spot, your African Sulcata Tortoise may start digging to escape the heat. If you do dig them a hole, dig a few extra inches down and place flagstones to stop African Sulcata Tortoises from digging further. Then cover this up with a few inches of dirt on top. This should keep them from digging a 10 foot hole in your yard.

On hot days a muddy pit should be created to allow your tortoises to soak themselves. The pit will also give them an area to defecate in.

Substrate

The substrate should be made from a mixture of soil and sand. Sulcata Tortoises are active grazers, plants and grass should be added for them inside their enclosure. Be aware that because of how they eat, they will eventually eat all the plants in their enclosure down to the roots.

Best Climate for African Sulcata Tortoises

2 African Sulcata Tortoises walking through the grass

For hatchlings kept indoors, standard reptile heating bulbs will help you maintain the temperature they need. African Sulcata Tortoises need a daytime temperature range of 90 to 100°F. The night time temperature can range from 60 to 80°F. If the temperature in your area gets lower than this, then a heating source should be added inside their enclosure.

A heating lamp should be added to give them a warm area. Securely place the heating lamp at a height so that your tortoises cannot touch them. You don’t want them accidentally burning their skin.

Outdoor housed tortoises do not need additional lighting sources. Baby tortoises kept indoors should be kept on a regular day-night lighting cycle. Tortoises kept indoors will also need UVA/UVB lighting in their enclosure to keep them healthy. The UV bulbs should be replaced after 6 months because they will start to lose their effectiveness.

Sulcata Tortoises need humidity in the range of 40 to 55 percent. If you stay in an area where the humidity is lower than this, a humidifier may be needed.

The Attention an African Sulcata Tortoise Needs

You can handle African Sulcata Tortoises gently when they are young. Handling them more than a few times a week can stress your tortoises.

While it takes them about 15 years to fully mature, African Sulcata Tortoises grow relatively fast. After a few years of growing they will become too big for you to lift. Since most don’t like to be lifted anyways, this is not a bad thing.

Adult tortoises are solitary and will do fine without you regularly interacting with them. They will still need your care and attention maintaining their enclosure, and they don’t seem to mind friendly interactions with people.

The large size and weight of the African Sulcata Tortoises requires expert care. They need to be given a large enclosure that is secured to prevent them from escaping. Maintaining the correct temperature, humidity and lighting conditions is also very important. Sulcata Tortoises live a long time, up to 150 years, which makes them a lifetime commitment.

If you cannot maintain the required living conditions or devote enough time to caring for them then they may not be a good pet for you and your family. Without proper care they will get sick and won’t live as long.

Health Issues

Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)

MBD is the most common disease found in pet reptiles. The disease is caused by your reptile not having enough vitamin D to properly absorb calcium. Being exposed to UV lighting helps them create vitamin D that they can use to absorb calcium.

 Symptoms include:

  • Lower jaw swelling 
  • Limb swelling
  • Facial bone softening
  • Appetite loss 
  • Seizures
  • Lethargy

An X-ray can help identify the extent of the disease. Sometimes MBD will lead to fractures, thin bone tissue or thickened bone shafts. The disease is more common in reptiles less than 2 years old.

If left untreated the disease can also lead to death. Consult your vet immediately if you find any of the above mentioned symptoms in your reptile.

Treatments can range from injecting your reptile with mineral supplements to medication and dietary modifications. To keep your reptiles from having MBD, they should be fed a diet rich in calcium (or calcium supplements) and have daily exposure to UV lighting.

Pyramiding

Pyramiding is a health issue similar to MBD. As the name suggests pyramiding results in piling up of scutes. The bone behind the scute also becomes deformed. A high protein diet and problems that result in MBD are generally what contributes to pyramiding. Sulcata Tortoises are vegetarians and do not need meat or any additional protein beyond whatever is in a grassy or leafy diet. Early signs of pyramiding include thick growth rings or depression in their scutes.

Shell rot is a serious problem in turtles. Poor water conditions, cuts from fights with other tank inhabitants or tank decorations can cause the disease. Improper feeding can cause shell rot because of malnutrition. Keeping them away from water, exposing them to heat and feeding them a high-protein diet can help treat the condition.

It’s important to know that pyramiding cannot be treated. Treatment is only able to stop the further growth of pyramiding. It’s fortunate for your tortoise that pyramiding is just an aesthetic issue and doesn’t seem to affect their normal life. Following the preventive measures for MBD will reduce the chances of your Tortoises getting this disease.

If you suspect your tortoise of having shell rot or pyramiding they should be taken to your vet immediately.

Respiratory Issues

Respiratory infections are a common health issue in reptiles. Poor enclosure conditions like excessive cold or too much, or not enough humidity as well as stress can lead to respiratory infections or pneumonia. 

Symptoms include:

  • Nasal discharge
  • Sneezing
  • Bubbles in mouth
  • Labored breathing
  • Lethargy

Take your reptile to your vet if they have any of the above symptoms. Antibiotics are commonly used to treat the illness. If the infection is severe, they may need to be hospitalized.

Respiratory symptoms can become serious if not attended to in the initial stages. Maintaining the right temperature gradient and humidity levels inside their living enclosures can prevent your reptile from getting respiratory diseases.

As a preventive measure, we always recommend washing your hands after handling any reptiles.

Shell Rot

Shell rot is a common problem that can occur in many species of turtles and tortoises. It’s caused by bacteria, fungi, or other microorganisms that live on the shell and feed on the keratin proteins found in the scutes (the scales of a turtle’s shell). This causes damage to the shell and can lead to infection if left untreated. Shell rot is associated with soft, discolored, or flaking patches on their shell.

The disease will cause small holes or look like something has been chewing on their shell. Soft spots on their shell or bloody discharge are very common. In serious cases the scutes may entirely fall off which will expose the bones and nerves that were protected by the shell.

Poor living conditions are what generally cause the bacterial growth and lead to Shell Rot. The disease can take a long time to heal. Antibiotics and regular cleanings are usually the recommended treatments. The best way to prevent this disease is to keep their enclosure clean and maintain the temperature inside their enclosure.

Salmonella

All reptiles are potential carriers of salmonella bacteria. The bacteria is present on their skin and shells (for turtles) but doesn’t seem to harm them. A major concern is that the disease can be transmitted to humans. Salmonella can cause serious and life-threatening conditions in humans. 

Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain in humans

As a preventive measure, we always recommend washing your hands after handling any reptiles. Pregnant women, young children and older people shouldn’t handle reptiles. These people are at an increased risk of getting infected because they have a weaker immune system.

Grooming and Care

Most tortoises like to soak themselves in water, and a water pit or a large vessel should be kept inside their enclosure. Most will use a plastic tub that is large enough for your tortoise to fit. You’ll want to make it easy for the tortoise to get in and out of the tank so they don’t get stuck. Fill the tub with water up to a few inches. Soaking them 2 to 3 times a week should be enough, but let them soak as often as they want.

Tortoises are known to defecate inside the tub while they are soaking themselves. The tub will need to be Thoroughly disinfected after they are done soaking. Washing your hands is very important and should help prevent you from getting harmful bacteria like Salmonella.

The living enclosure of your tortoises will help wear down their nails, so there should be no need to trim their nails. If you find their nails are growing too long, you can contact your vet for advice.

Regularly check their shell and skin for signs of diseases like Metabolic Bone Disease or Shell Rot. If you can see signs of infection, check the enclosure climate and make sure everything is correct. Consult your vet for the best advice if you suspect a problem.

Feeding an African Sulcata Tortoise

an African Sulcata Tortoise with their eye on a delicious flower

African Sulcata Tortoises are herbivores. They need to be given a diet that is high in fiber and low in protein. Grasses and hays should make up 75 percent of their diet. Edible weeds and flowers are also good foods for them. They can be given dandelions, endives, cactus pads or clover. Leafy green vegetables can also be fed in moderation. Something most people don’t know is that Sulcata Tortoises really love cacti! You’ll need to remove any of the needles because that can really hurt them.

They like to graze so adding plants and grass inside their enclosure will give them access to food anytime they want. Sulcata Tortoises will feed on ANYTHING that they find growing in their enclosure. They are considered ravenous feeders and will eat any plant in their enclosure to the root, just a word of caution.

Avoid giving them food that is high in oxalates like spinach, beet greens, broccoli, cauliflower, mustard and kale. High amounts of oxalates can cause kidney problems in Tortoises. Fruits can be fed to them, but it should be a rare treat and not a food they eat more than 1 – 2 times a week. Animal protein and pellet food should never be fed to them.

Sulcata Tortoises mostly stay hydrated from the food they eat but a water bowl should still be kept inside their enclosure. Sometimes they have been known to drink a fair amount of water, especially on hotter days. The water bowl should be cleaned and refilled daily.

Sulcata Tortoises are attracted to bright colors. If you have any plastic or glass in their enclosure they may try to eat it. If you can, try to give them some brightly colored foods because they seem to enjoy it more, especially carrots.

It’s a good idea to not have their food placed on dirt or rocks because there is a good chance that they will eat some dirt or rocks with their food. Consult your vet if you have any questions about the right type of food that should be fed to your African Sulcata Tortoises.

Related Questions:

Are African Sulcata Tortoises an Endangered Species?

African Sulcata Tortoises are not currently endangered. They are listed as vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). What this means is that they are likely to become endangered in the future. The reduction in the wildlife population of Sulcata Tortoises is because of the loss of their natural habitat.

Over-capturing African Sulcata Tortoises from the wild for the pet trade is a major contributor to the tortoise becoming vulnerable. To avoid contributing to their situation, always ask your breeder if the tortoise you are buying is wild-caught.

Are African Sulcata Tortoises Attracted Towards Bright Colors?

Sulcata tortoises are generally attracted to anything brightly colored. They may try to break through barriers and fences in an attempt to get to something that is bright. Avoid keeping toys or anything else that is bright and harmful in their enclosure. African Sulcata Tortoises may try to eat them which can cause serious health issues.

Do African Sulcata Tortoises Shed?

Like most reptiles, tortoises shed their skin as they grow. They do not shed their skin all at once, but in small pieces. While shedding the skin or parts of their body will have a flaky or whitish area. Sulcata Tortoises will generally shed their skin without needing any help. Avoid peeling of the skin because it can cause infections or bleeding.