Adult Geochelone sulcata

Adult female Geochelone sulcata
Photograph by Sean Baker

I have often wondered what it is about turtles and tortoises that draws certain people to them. For me it was a fascination with giant tortoises. This life-time interest in large tortoises is what brought me to living with the African sulcata.

Most people are familiar with the giant tortoises that we see in zoos: the Galapagos tortoises of the Galapagos Islands and the Aldabra tortoise of the Aldabra Atoll. In the same genus (Geochelone) with these is the African spurred tortoise (Geochelone sulcata), the largest mainland tortoise species in the world. They are reported to grow to over two hundred pounds in weight and thirty-six inches in length.

Last fall, when I first heard that there was a possibility of me acquiring a pair of sulcata I had a lot of questions. What do they eat? What would they need for housing? How much are they like the desert tortoise? Answering these questions helped me to ensure that adequate husbandry facilities were ready when the pair eventually arrived.

The first thing that I did was to look them up in our copies of Pritchard's Encyclopedia of Turtles and Ernst and Barbours' Turtles of the World. Sulcata come from the southern Sahara Desert region, an area of Africa which crosses the countries of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Sudan, and Ethiopia. I also found that almost nothing is known about sulcata in the wild. Almost all the available information is on captive animals.

From talking to people who either keep or know about sulcata and from discovering that the region of Africa they inhabit is semi-arid and in the tropical zone, I had a few clues to go on. Like the desert tortoise sulcata are vegetarians and most of their natural food is dried grasses and leaves from desert scrub. In the wild they have to walk and nibble to get their fill.

Housing was the next question. Sulcata like to be dry and warm. Unlike our desert tortoise they do not hibernate. (Being in the tropics, the southern Sahara doesn't cool down like the Mojave desert.) So, I wanted something that would be dry, something that we could keep warm, and something that the tortoises could go in and out of easily. We found a product called a "Dogloo". It is a large dog house, made out of molded plastic, in the shape of an igloo. It is insulated to keep the heat in and has a clear plastic door that hangs over the opening.

We set up the "Dogloo" on our covered patio so that it is sheltered from the winter elements. To provide heat, I put a "pig blanket", a solid flat piece of fiberglass with heating coils of wire inside that is made for hog farmers, on the floor of the Dogloo. The pig blanket does not cover all of the area of the floor. This is important because it allows the sulcata to move on and off the pig blanket and control their own temperature without having to leave their house. From the dome of the ceiling, I hung a red heat lamp to give them a "hot spot" if they want to warm up, with enough space to move away if they need to cool down. An indoor-outdoor thermometer mounted outside provides temperature readings on the inside and outside of the Dogloo, for my information.

Now I was ready for Clark and Lois (the Super-tortoises). Being wild-caught, no one really knows how old they are but I was told by tortoise "pundits" that they are probably about ten years old. Clark weighed thirty-one pounds and Lois weighed thirty-five pounds. (A very large desert tortoise might weigh sixteen to eighteen pounds.) When I first got the sulcata they were very shy. However, I learned that they will do anything for an apple, so this way we got to know each other.

I think they have a sweet tooth. In addition to baled alfalfa, Purina Pure Pride 100 horse chow, and grass and plants growing in the yard which are available to them at all times, every three or four days they are offered an assortment of vegetables (especially carrots, potatoes, broccoli) and a little fruit.