Not only is the African Spurred Tortoise the largest tortoise on the African mainland, it is the third largest tortoise on the planet!

These amazing tortoises, the African Spurred Tortoises (also called the Sulcata Tortoise or Spurred Tortoise) are large, impressive animals. The only larger species of tortoise are the giant tortoises from the Galapagos and Aldabras.

The African Spurred Tortoises are outgoing, very tame, and are among the most hardy of the pet tortoises. Though this may sound like a desirable pet, you must keep in mind that not only do they get large, but they have large care requirements. They grow relatively quickly, are very powerful, and require a lot of food, a varied diet, and a lot of space. You must consider these needs before acquiring this wonderful tortoise for a pet. They do get much larger than most owners can deal with.

For more information see:
Selecting and Caring for Your Turtle or Tortoise

The African Spurred Tortoise

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Feeding the African Spurred Tortoise

Check out how big this Sulcata Tortoise is! It is amazing how gigantic they can get!

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Testudines
  • Family: Testudinidae
  • Genus: Geochelone
  • Species: sulcata


   African Spurred Tortoises, also called the Sulcata Tortoises, are found in hot, dry scrubland areas in a large swath across North-Central Africa, south of the Sahara Desert. They live in the deep burrows in which they seek refuge from the heat. They browse grass and plant growth. Unfortunately, these tortoises are becoming very scarce in nature.


  This tortoise is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: VU – Vulnerable and and listed on CITES: Appendix II.


   African Spurred Tortoises or Sulcata Tortoises grow quite large, with many adult females reaching 20″ (50 cm) and 30″ (76 cm) for males. Females typically reach weights of 65 to 75 pounds and large males can grow to 125 to 150 pounds.
   True to its name, the African Spurred Tortoise has spurs on its hind legs, though the purpose of these spurs is not known. It has a carapace (upper shell) that is broad and oval shaped. It is more flattened on the top with sides descending quickly, turning into serrations that turn upward on the edge. The plastron (bottom shell) is an off white color. Their head is brown with the overall body color varying from a yellowish brown to golden. The skin is very thick and there are large scales on the front legs that overlap.    Males are difficult to distinguish from females though they do get much larger, their tails are slightly longer and thicker, and they have a more concave plastron. It is almost impossible to sex these tortoises when they are young, smaller than about 15″ (38 cm).

Juvenile African Spurred Tortoises
Picture of juvenile African Spurred Tortoises or Sulcata Tortoises

Care and Feeding:

   African Spurred Tortoises or Sulcata Tortoises should be fed a diet that is very high in fiber. They will feed eagerly on a mixed salad of greens and vegetables each day, but you should also try to offer as much grass, hay, dandelions, leaves, and Opuntia cactus pads as possible. A sprinkle of calcium should be offered on the salad every few times.
   For optimal health, they should be fed fruits only sparingly or not at all. Offer some melon, apple, and other fruits during the hot summers, but only once every ten days to two weeks. These Tortoises should not be fed any dog food or cat food and commercial foods only very seldom as they are prone to renal problems and medical issues related to high protein diets.
   Water should be offered in a flat saucer. This can be a flat dish or a plastic saucer such as the type that is normally placed under a plant pot. These can be easily cleaned and sterilized once a week or as needed. For small tortoises, once a week simply remove it from the enclosure and soak it in shallow water. This will give the small tortoise some water to drink and will let it rehydrate.


   African Spurred Tortoises or Sulcata Tortoises require warm, dry environments and so if you live in a humid area, be very careful about keeping these tortoises outdoors. Living on the damp ground will cause serious medical problems with these tortoises. A pair of adults will require a large backyard and outbuilding that is at least 12′ wide x 24′ long.
   The substrate can be a mixture of 3/4 sand and 1/4 peat moss. A layer of grass hay can be added at one end to provide some shelter. The substrate should be kept dry as African Spurred Tortoises or Sulcata Tortoises are sensitive to damp conditions.
   Though outgoing and very tame, you should provide a variety of shelters to give these tortoises a feeling of security. Add large pieces of curved cork bark, large banana leaves, piles of straw or hay, etc. for the tortoises to use as shelter. The shelter should be located at the cooler end of the enclosure and not directly under the heat-emitting lamps.
   Heat should be provided using a heat-emitting bulb in a lamp from overhead. Ideally, this heat lamp should hang just about 12″ above the substrate. The heat-emitting bulb should be provide a basking spot of 90{deg} to 95{deg} F (32{deg} to 35{deg} C) at one end of the enclosure. This will provide a hot end for the tortoise to enjoy.
   Lighting can be provided with a shop light fixture overhead that is fitted with one or two UV-emitting bulbs. These can be found at your pet store or on-line from a variety of sources. UVB-heat bulbs® from T-Rex products and Reptisun® bulbs from Zoomed will also provide UV radiation to the enclosure. This UVB is necessary for Vitamin D3 production (needed for calcium absorption, proper muscle functioning, etc.).
   The most common form of indoor accommodation for a small or medium sized African Spurred Tortoise or Sulcata Tortoise is a large terrarium. You can also use plastic tubs, wooden cages, and other enclosures, but glass terrariums are easy to find at the local pet store and they come in a variety of sizes. Of course, as the tortoise grows, it will need larger and larger enclosures.
   All tortoises benefit from being kept outdoors for all or part of their lives. They receive doses of UVB radiation, environmental heat, and of course enjoy a connection to the grass, plants, and soil found in outdoor pens. Outdoor enclosures should offer shelter from heat, a secure place to rest, and a water source. Food offered to these tortoises can be supplemented by plantings of some of their favorite grasses, fruits, and vegetables within the enclosure. Also be very diligent to make sure that outdoor enclosures are escape-proof and predator-proof.


   African Spurred Tortoises or Sulcata Tortoises are outgoing and very tame. A large animal, they are also very strong . They can dig deep burrows, push over ornaments in the yard, and cause other mischief. So be sure to carefully “baby proof” the tortoise’s habitat. You want to be sure it cannot flip over on its back anytime you are away as this can prove fatal for the tortoise.
   Though these tortoises are quite tame, most tortoises probably do not enjoy being handled. The African Spurred Tortoises or Sulcata Tortoises usually won’t retreat into their shells and will usually look around to see what is going on.
   They can be hand-fed, and red strawberries, pieces of melon, and hibiscus flowers are some of their favorite treats. Specimens that have been raised from small, captive-hatched babies and which are open to daily interaction over many years become the most tame and easily handled.


   An established pair of African Spurred Tortoises or Sulcata Tortoises can be very prolific and in warm areas can produce year-round. A light winter cooling, followed by hot days triggers breeding in these tortoises. A healthy, active pair can produce two to four clutches of 10 to 30 eggs each season, depending on the size of the female.
   It is felt by most keepers that the addition of protein and calcium to female tortoises’ diets is essential in having them produce clutches of healthy, viable eggs. Eggs hatch in as many as 90 days when incubated in the 82{deg} to 86{deg} F range of temperatures.

Ailments / Health Problems:

   African Spurred Tortoises or Sulcata Tortoises are found in hot, dry habitat. Thus, their captive enclosures should reflect this need. When kept cool or damp for an extended period of time, you can expect this tortoise to begin showing respiratory problems. The early signs are puffy eyes, runny noses, etc. You should strive to maintain an enclosure that is hot and dry to avoid these health issues.
   These tortoises are really only available as captive-hatched babies these days, so you should not be concerned about internal parasites unless a baby has been kept in the enclosure with wild-caught adults or wild-caught tortoises of another species.
   Long-term lack of appetite, runny or smelly stools, and blood in the feces are signs of a problem and you should visit a qualified veterinarian if any of these signs are noticed.


   African Spurred Tortoises or Sulcata Tortoises are readily available from better reptile stores, on-line, or at reptile shows and expos.
   Try to purchase your tortoise from a breeder or someone with intimate knowledge of tortoises. They will help you set up the proper enclosure and will give you helpful hints so you are successful. Also, if you don’t have to ship your tortoise, that is always best. A beginning keeper should purchase a tortoise that is at least three months old to make sure it is past the delicate stage.

   PLEASE do not ever release an African Spurred Tortoise or Sulcata Tortoise, or any reptile pet into the wild. There are adoption organizations that will take your unwanted pet, no questions asked, and find the proper captive environment for it. ( for details)

Featured Image Credit: apple2499, Shutterstock