The sulcata tortoise, Geochelone sulcata, is a desert tortoise native to the Sahel region of Africa, south of the Sahara Desert. It is found in the desert and savannah grasslands of Niger, Senegal and Ethiopia. Adult sulcatas measure from 18 to 30 inches (45 to 76 centimeters) in diameter, and weigh from 70 to 150 pounds (30 to 68 kilograms). They are the third-largest tortoise after the Galapagos and Aldabran tortoises.
This species has become endangered in much of its natural habitat as a result of environmental changes and socio-economic conditions in the area. In Senegal, the sulcata tortoise is revered, and conservation efforts have been successful. The pet trade has been a mixed blessing for the survival of this species, because it generally does well in captivity.
Hatchling sulcatas are small enough to fit into the palm of one’s hand. They are friendly, outgoing reptiles and are readily available from pet stores and online sources. While sulcatas grow slowly in their harsh, natural environment, taking from 25 to 50 years to reach full size, a captive sulcata tortoise can reach full size in as little as 5 to 10 years. Providing them with the proper care and environment can be challenging.
Sulcatas are as long lived as the Galapagos and can live more than 100 years. They usually outlive their owners, who should make sure they’ve arranged for a friend or family member to adopt their pet tortoise, if necessary. Their upkeep can be costly, so it is suggested that one also set up a stipend to cover care and feeding.
In the desert and savannah, sulcatas eat grasses, wild flowers and other plants. They require a diet that is high in fiber and low in protein. The bulk of their food should be timothy hay, grass hay and edible leaves, flowers and weeds. Sulcata tortoises can be fed vegetables occasionally, and, on rare occasions, fruits such as oranges or apples.
While they are still young, sulcata tortoises are best housed on tortoise tables, rather than aquariums, which do not allow sufficient air circulation. Tortoise tables are usually made of wood and have walls high enough to keep the tortoises from climbing over them. An ideal habitat has a recessed area for sleeping and a daytime area that is kept between 75° and 85° Fahrenheit (23° and 29° Celsius). Ultraviolet B (UVB) lighting is essential, because the sulcata tortoise depends on these rays to get sufficient calcium.
The bedding on the tortoise table can be of aspen shavings, topsoil mixed with grated coconut shell or sphagnum moss. It should be left in piles for the tortoise to push around and burrow in. The natural burrows of the sulcata are damp and humid, so keeping the substrate on the table moist is recommended.
Sulcata tortoises rarely have access to water in the desert, and some may never learn to drink water. Dehydration is a major cause of death with sulcata hatchlings. They should be soaked for 15 minutes every day while they are small. As they get larger, they require fewer soakings, though there should always be a flat dish of water, such as a terra cotta saucer for a large planter, available for them.
Every day weather permits, one should take his or her tortoise outside to graze on grasses and weeds and to absorb the sun’s rays. When the tortoise is too large to easily pick up and carry, it is necessary to build or buy an outdoor shed for it to sleep in at night. They cannot tolerate temperatures below 60° Fahrenheit (16° Celsius), heating systems should be installed in their outdoor sheds.