Last week, while taking some quiet time, I found myself reflecting on the status of Geochelone sulcata in
captivity. I was thinking of the myriad number of questions people ask when they approach me after I give a slide
show. "What do you think about feeding store trimmings, chow and Pure Pride?" "What kind of supplements do you add to
their food?" "Will I be able to sex my tortoise?" "Will my tortoise lay eggs?" "How large do they need to be to lay
eggs?" The short and obvious answers are: not much, nothing, sooner or later, good question, and that depends.
For those of us who require more precise answers, I'll take the questions one at a time. But first, lets look to
the future status of Geochelone sulcata in captivity. Are they going to be the "trash" tortoise of the 90's?
Will they soon be "turning up in our local deserts because people can't give them away"? I don't think so. With the
number of breeding adult Geochelone sulcata in this country remaining fairly constant or at best increasing
slowly, I don't look for things to change much in the near future as far as overall hatchling production is concerned.
While it is true that a number of captive raised animals are nearing or have reached egg laying size, it remains to
be seen whether or not these females can or will produce numbers of viable eggs like their wild caught counterparts.
Having experienced problems myself in this area with captive hatched/raised Geochelone sulcata, I feel that "a
good wild-caught egg-laying female in the hand is worth five captive hatched/raised females in the bush. Most of these
captive raised sub-adults have probably been fed an improper diet for years. However, blaming bad eggs on improper
diet, the consequences of which I will discuss momentarily, may be premature.
So, I see no need to circle the wagons. I submit that the price of a hatchling in the future is anybody's guess,
but we need look no further than their cousins Geochelone pardalis, the leopard tortoise, for a good guess.
They are still in demand.
Now that we've discussed the future, lets come back to the present and deal with the questions. What do you think
about feeding store trimmings, mammal chows and Pure Pride? As I said above, not much. There is no doubt in my mind
that feeding Geochelone sulcata an improper diet such as store trimmings is not without consequence. It is the
main contributor to watery loose stools which if allowed to persist, can be a disaster for the prospective breeder of
Geochelone sulcata. A serious effect of watery loose stools is the rampant proliferation of gut protozoa (such
as Balantidium, trichomonids, etc.) to undesirable levels. This is the kind of environment these organisms need
to sustain themselves in abnormally large numbers. No Geochelone sulcata could be happy while having to deal
with all the toxic waste products these organisms produce.
Chows designed for other animals are popular food items that I feel are best omitted from the diet of Geochelone sulcata. Zu-preem, monkey chows, dog food and rodent chows are all examples of food items that contain animal
basal protein and fat, designed for carnivorous or omnivorous mammals. Geochelone sulcata, like a horse or a
green iguana, utilizes fermentation processes to extract nutrients from the plant materials they eat. These chows may
compromise this process. Good moonshine is made from fermented plant material, not "chicken McNuggets"!
Geochelone sulcata hatchlings raised on a diet containing mammal chows can exhibit serious health problems. Several years ago I raised a group of sixteen Geochelone sulcata hatchlings on a diet containing these chows. Several of the animals developed large bladder stones and when necropsied were found to have visceral gout as well.
All of the babies exhibited irregular shell growth until their diet was changed. Even if Geochelone sulcata are
fed mammal chows in conjunction with a complete, more proper diet there will always be individual tortoises that will
fill up on just the chow. Incidentally, most of my adult, wild-caught Geochelone sulcata show no interest in
any of the mammal chows.
Another problem with these chows is that they are often soaked in water to facilitate feeding. This excessive moisture can also contribute to loose watery stools. Geochelone sulcata occurs mostly in water-starved areas in
the wild. Its metabolism is designed to conserve water, not excrete it. Water-laced food, in addition to the usual
free access to drinking water, can be too much of a good thing. Soaked mammal chows also spoil quickly, becoming sour,
and must be removed promptly (within 12-24 hours). The unfortunate tortoise that consumes this spoiled, foul
concoction may vomit soon afterwards. Just because a tortoise likes something does not mean that he should eat it.
Altogether, the hassles of feeding these chows can be more trouble than they are worth.
Although Purina Pure-Pride, a horse supplement, differs in appearance from the mammal chows people use and contains no animal protein, it does contain a large percentage of grain. I feel that this food is much too high in its energy
content. Pure-Pride and similar pellets are designed to supplement the diet of an animal that expends and needs a lot
more energy than G. sulcata. Where all this energy goes to or how it is utilized when fed to G. sulcata
is anybody's guess. This feed also attracts rodents. My G. sulcata receive a bulky high fiber and low energy
content diet. I feel that Pure-Pride and similar pellets are used by folks more often for convenience's sake than for
its health aspects.
What kind of supplements do you add to their food? Nothing. This is sort of a continuation of the first answer. I provide my G. sulcata, large and small, with fine-stemmed premium alfalfa hay. You can raise a 200 lb
Clydesdale draft horse on alfalfa hay alone. We also use rye grass hay, clover and fescue pasture cuttings, and
spineless Opuntia (nopales) cactus. I get truckloads of surplus Halloween pumpkins from the farmers (they will
stay fresh for months if properly stored). These, along with home grown zucchini are very popular with the tortoises.
I have found it unnecessary to supplement this diet with calcium and the like. The tortoises' scats look like firm
hand grenades, which is the way they should look. My success with this diet is evidenced by the apparent healthiness
of my tortoises. All have exhibited smooth even shell growth, great vigor, are lean and fit, and the females have
produced many fertile eggs.
Will I be able to sex my tortoise? Sooner or later! Beware of dealers offering so called female tortoises with a size less than 12 inches. Just because your tortoise has not displayed his penis does not mean that he doesn't have one! Usually, but not always, some secondary sexual characteristics have manifested themselves by the time the animal
is 12 inches long (i.e. the tail enlarges in the male).
How large do they have to be to lay eggs? That depends. I have heard of the occasional 15 inch female laying eggs, but I have not observed any of mine doing so. Based on my specimens, 18 inches plus is my rule of thumb. If you are in
a hurry to get tortoise eggs, try to purchase larger specimens. This is better than overfeeding an improper diet to a
small one and growing it to "breeder size" in 3 years. Besides, most people don't like to look at lumpy tortoise
shells, myself included.
In closing, I have found G. sulcata not only vigorous, tough and hardy in captivity but also to possess an engaging disposition. I feel these qualities make them an ideal pet tortoise.
Originally published in the Tortuga Gazette 30(2): 6-7, February 1994