African Spurred Tortoise

Also known as Sulcata Tortoise, African spur thigh, and just spurred tortoises

Geochelone sulcata

Order: Testudines   Family: Testudinidae

Husbandry Information

Housing Requirements

  • Sulcata tortoises are best kept with access to an outdoor area for most, or all, of the year.
  • Include a few large, flat rocks in an indoor enclosure. They help file down the tortoises’ nails and give them a clean surface for food.
  • Walls of yard should be 24-inches in height above ground, as well as 12- to 24-inches below ground to prevent (or discourage) these tortoises from digging.
    • See-through fences and walls shouldn’t be used, as the tortoises tend to try to escape through or over these walls. Solid barriers that they cannot see through will prevent these stubborn, redundant behaviors.
  • Provide shallow, wide pools or dishes for soaking; mud wallows are also a favorite. These tortoises will often defecate while soaking, so provide a smaller dish they cannot soak in for drinking.
  • Temperature, Humidity, & Lighting:
    • Temperature: This species can handle surprisingly cold temperatures, as low as 45 degrees Fahrenheit, with no problems. When nighttime temperatures drop below 50 degrees, a heated hide box should be provided that maintains at least 55 to 60 degrees at night (70s is better), or the tortoises should be brought in during those times.
    • Indoor temps should be 68 to 80 degrees;
    • Basking: should be in the 100-degree range.
  • Humidity:
  • Lighting: 12-14 hrs/day, all light sources off at night
  • Substrate: this species likes to burrow if there isn’t a proper hide box accessible as a cool retreat during the summer months or a warm retreat during the winter. Cypress mulch* has proven to be a great bedding, but other options are various hays (timothy, Bermuda, alfalfa, orchard grass, etc.), as well as coconut coir or peat moss.

*Cypress mulches are used less commonly for reptile bedding as it is unsustainably harvested and many organizations have chosen to use alternative, sustainable bedding.

  • Burrow: tortoises housed indoors should have access to a humid hiding area, much like they would in a natural burrow.

Diet Requirements

  • Reptile Salad: spring mixes, squash (yellow, zucchini, pumpkin), kale, collard greens, turnip greens, cactus pads and fruit
  • Mazuri Tortoise Diet
  • Sulcata tortoises are grazers and will eat any grasses and most plants in their enclosure.
    • If outdoors, plant clump grasses as well as desert-type mesquite and African sumac trees, which also make for nice décor. Fragile plants are likely to be destroyed by the tortoises once the animals have any size to them.
  • Fresh Browse: mulberry leaves, grape leaves, hibiscus leaves and flowers, clover, dandelion leaves and flowers.

Veterinary Concerns

  • Sulcata tortoises can also be prone to respiratory infections if they are kept in cool or wet enclosures. They need to be able to dry out, particularly if temperatures are low.

Notes on Enrichment & Training


Colony or Breeding Management

Notes species is housed or managed socially or for breeding purposes.

Individual Identification

Dimorphism or practiced ways to individually mark species (such as those in colonies, like giant millipedes).

Programmatic Information


Temperature Guidelines




Tips on Presentation

Touching Techniques

Tips on Handling

Potential Messaging

  • This is a popular pet species, though, because of its size, it many owners find them to be unmanageable and in need of a new home.
  • In general, animals seen at the zoo do not make good pets. Most have specialized dietary, veterinary, housing, and social needs that are difficult or impossible for even dedicated pet owners to meet. Always ensure that your future pet has not been taken from the wild. Capture of wild animals for the pet trade has significantly damaged the survival prospects of species such as sloths, tamanduas, and many parrots. Captured animals are typically mistreated by profit-motivated traffickers and dealers, resulting in many animal deaths; well-meaning animal lovers may feel like they are rescuing animals by purchasing them but are really perpetuating the cruelty. In addition, many exotic pets are released by their owners when they become too dangerous or demanding, often with devastating effects on local ecosystems. Animals that should never be kept as pets include all bats, primates, and exotic carnivores. Birds, fish, and reptiles have specialized needs, are frequently wild-caught, and damage the local environment if released; guests should be advised to educate themselves and proceed with caution. Domestic dogs and cats are almost always the best option! Many deserving animals are available for adoption at animal shelters.

Acquisition Information

This species is readily available through reptile and pet rescues.

Comments from the Rating System

  • Zoo Atlanta: Suitability of this species depends on the size of the individual; larger/ heavier ones are more challenging to move

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat


Physical Description

This is the largest species of continental tortoise in the world. Many adult sulcata tortoises break the 100-pound mark.

Life Cycle

Most indications are that sulcata tortoises can live more than 70 years.


This tortoise digs dens up to 10 feet (3 meters) deep to recline in during the heat of the day. These underground havens are significantly cooler than the air above ground, dipping into the 70s (20s Celsius). These dens are often the only respite for other animals as well, so they reuse abandoned tortoise burrows.

Threats and Conservation Status


Did you know…

  • This tortoise can go weeks without food or water, and when they find a water source it can drink up to 15 percent of its body weight
  • The name “sulcata” is a Latin word for “furrow,” which are found on the tortoise’s back between each scute.


Cover Photo: San Diego Zoo


Any Documents to attach, species spotlights, etc.

Contributors and Citations