The African spurred tortoise (Geochelone sulcata), also known as the giant African sulcuta tortoise, is one of the largest tortoise species seen in the reptile trade, and should not be confused with its similarly named but much smaller Mediterranean cousin the spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graecea). Although hatchling sulcuta tortoises are the most appealing of all the tortoises with their beautiful dark eyes and light gold colouration, they grow at an incredible rate to lengths of 80-100cm in length and well in the region of 50kg in weight. Also, when you consider that the typical lifespan of one of these gentle giants can be expected to exceed 80 years in captivity when properly cared for, it soon becomes clear that caring for the huge African spurred tortoise is an equally huge responsibility and not something to be undertaken lightly. Not only must potential owners consider exactly where and how they will house such a big tortoise, but who will take responsibility for its lifelong care, as a healthy sulcata can be expected to outlive its owners by decades.
Very small baby sulcatas are best reared indoors in tortoise tables which can be purchased from specialist reptile shops or simply made at home if you have the DIY skills. These rectangular shaped pens with raised walls should be constructed of sealed wood, and furnished with a layer of coarse-grade beech wood chip substrate or newspaper, with a curved section of cork bark or half a terracotta flowerpot stuffed with hay to use as a hide and sleeping area. A very shallow water dish with low edges such as a plant pot saucer should be provided so that the hatchlings can easily step in and out of it without getting stuck, with food being given in a separate saucer nearby. Hatchlings will also appreciate a shallow tray of dry clean soil in which to dig around, although this should be kept at the far end of the table away from the food and water or else it can get very messy! A combined incandescent mercury vapour bulb should be directed into one end of the pen to create a basking spot and provide the essential high output full spectrum UV lighting which is particularly important for growing youngsters to ensure proper skeletal and shell development. On warm days, older babies and juveniles can be placed outdoors in a secure run similar to a tortoise table but with a sturdy mesh top to prevent predators such as dogs, cats and foxes getting inside, and with one end covered to create a cool shaded area for the tortoises to rest out of the sun. This not only allows them to roam and explore in the safety of a secure area but encourages them to graze – a typical healthy sulcata will spend most of its day munching grass and sleeping.
Within a matter of months, a young African spurred tortoise will have grown too large and strong to be housed safely in an indoor table, and will need to be moved permanently to its adult quarters - usually this comprises a secure purpose built pen or room in an insulated outbuilding with access to an adjoining paddock or very large garden. A 6’x8’ shed or empty garage can be modified for this purpose, with a suitably sized doorway complete with ramp and sliding shutter being built into one side at ground level to allow the tortoises to go in and out at will during the day while being shut up and locked at night to deter predators and tortoise thieves. The inside sleeping quarters should be bedded deeply with fresh hay for the tortoises to burrow into and heated using a 24 hour infra-red bulb suspended several feet from the floor at one end in a protective cage to prevent accidental burns. The outdoor paddock or tortoise garden will need to be large enough to allow them adequate room to explore, graze and dig – the perimeter should be constructed of either a solid wooden fence with no gaps in it and support posts bedded several feet down in concrete, or preferably brickwork up to a height of no less than 4 foot - adult sulcatas are incredibly strong and heavy, and will easily push through or dig underneath wire or picket fencing without hesitation. The paddock grounds should be reasonably flat to avoid these sometimes clumsy giants from managing to roll over and get stuck belly-up, and some form of shelter from the sun, wind and rain will be needed either in the form of hardy bushes and shrubs, or a purpose built wooden shelter.
As with all tortoises, the African spurred is a strict herbivore, requiring a vegetarian diet that mimics that they would have access to in the wild. As they originate from the arid savannahs, dune lands and scrublands of central Africa’s mainland countries, they have evolved to thrive on a diet of fibrous, dry grasses, weeds and shrub foliage. In captive environments this is best replicated by offering copious amounts of clean grass for grazing, as well as a variety of fresh weeds such as dandelions, chickweed and clover, with very occasional treats such as small portions of carrot, spinach and mustard greens. A good vitamin and mineral supplement should be given twice a week, while cuttlefish bones provide an additional source of dietary calcium. It is strongly recommended that tortoises are microchipped by a specialist reptile or zoo animal veterinary surgeon when the reach a suitable size, as they are quite valuable and unfortunately are often targeted by animal thieves. Microchipping only takes a few minutes and is the best way to ensure that a tortoise can be quickly reunited with its owner should it go missing.