Sulcata Tortoise As Pets: Care, Size, Lifespan & Price

Sulcata Tortoise

Sulcata tortoise are gentle giants of the reptile world.

These massive tortoises are the third largest species in the world, weighing in at up to 200 pounds! They are third to only the Aldabra and Galápagos breeds.

Sulcatas are known for their sociable personalities, calm temperament and long lifespans, sometimes living over a century. These traits make them one of the most popular pet tortoises.

They make perfect pets for owners with large yards who live in hot climates.

This guide will cover everything you need to know about keeping a Sulcata tortoise. From feeding and housing to behavior and buying our care sheet has it all.

Quick Overview
Common Name Sulcata or African spurred tortoise
Scientific Name Centrochelys sulcata
Family Testudinidae
Range Sahara Desert and Sahel region
Size 18-30 inches, 80-150 pounds
Color Sandy brown, yellow, and beige
Lifespan 70+ years
Husbandry Simple
Diet Grasses, hay, shrubs, weeds and flowers
Enclosure Size 200 square feet
Temperature 80°F to 95°F
Humidity 40% to 55%
Price $100 to $300

Sulcata Tortoise Species Guide

African Spurred Tortoise

Sulcata tortoises (Centrochelys sulcata) are large, slow and intelligent reptiles found in the Sahara Desert and lower Sahel of Africa.

These tortoises top out as the third largest tortoise breed in the world.

Full grown Sulcata tortoises can reach over 150 pounds, though their growth rate is slow. It can take an adult over 10 years to grow to this size.

Sulcata tortoises are characterized by large scutes, oval shells and leathery skin.

Their arms and legs are covered in hard, protective scales and spurs. These spurs are the reason behind their other common names, the African spurred tortoise and Spur Thigh Tortoise.

These spurs are used for defense against predators as well as added protection against heat, wind, and water loss. They create a very thick layer of skin, which protects the tortoise’s legs.

Sulcata tortoises are typically brown, gray and yellow in color. This helps them to blend in with the neutral tones of the Sahara desert. Younger individuals hatch with brighter, more contrasting colors. However, their color fades to a uniform sandy beige as they age.

To escape the heat of the desert, Sulcatas dig burrows that remain cooler and more humid. They are mostly active at dawn and dusk, usually basking in the morning to warm up after the colder nights.

Sulcatas are a solitary species that can be highly territorial towards other individuals.

Males will attempt to flip each other by shoving and ramming shells in contests of strength and endurance. Females are less aggressive, but should still be housed individually to avoid any conflicts.

Pros and Cons As Pets

Sulcata tortoises are one of the most widely known and well-loved tortoise breeds to keep as pets.

Their popularity is all because of their docile personalty, giant size, and exceptionally long lifespan.

Sulcata tortoise as pets are gentle, curious, and docile. They are safe to have around young children (with supervision), as long as everyone washes their hands before and after interacting.

As pet tortoises go, this breed is one of the friendliest and most outgoing.

They have individual personalities and can learn to recognize their owners. Some will form attachments with their owners and can even learn to approach their caretakers. Some owners go so far as to compare their tortoises’ personalities to dogs.

Sulcatas are a great choice for a beginner who is prepared to take on a lifelong commitment. With good care, some can live for over 100 years! With the right setup and husbandry they are easy to care for, but an outdoor enclosure is a must for these reptiles.

Other tortoises, like the Egyptian or marginated, can be kept inside your home in a terrarium. This is not possible with a Sulcata.

Anyone interested in this breed will need to have access to a spacious outdoor yard planted with grass and edible shrubs. To stay happy and healthy they must have an outdoor living space larger than 200 square feet.

Keep in mind that Sulcatas are avid burrowers and are likely to create holes in the yard.

Pros Cons
  • Easy to care for and resistant to many illnesses.
  • Friendly, curious and docile temperament with outgoing personalities.
  • Able to recognize their owners and form a lifelong bond.
  • Exceptionally long lifespan.
  • Relatively simple husbandry once their pen is built.
  • Require daily outdoor temperatures between 80 and 95°F.
  • Their 70+ year lifespan means they are a life-long responsibility.
  • Need a lot of outdoor space for grazing and digging.
  • Enthusiastic burrowers that will leave holes and piles of dirt in their enclosure and your yard.

Overall we highly recommend a pet Sulcata tortoise for anyone who has the means to provide a large outdoor pen and is committed to a lifetime of caring for their reptile.

Price

Tortoise should only be purchased from a reputable breeder. This is true for all pet reptiles and is one of the reason why there are many speciality breeders of species like Leopard Geckos and Ball Pythons.

In the wild Sulcata tortoises are endangered thanks to habitat loss and over-collection for the pet trade.

Luckily, they are easy to breed as pets and can be purchased from exotic pet stores and online sellers.

You can find baby Sulcata tortoises for sale for $100. Adults are slightly more expensive at $200-$300. Their popularity and ease of breeding means they are cheaper than other breeds.

When choosing a tortoise pick one without visible signs of injury (damaged shells or pyramiding scutes) or illness. A healthy tortoise is bright, alert and curious about their surroundings.

We encourage potential keepers to adopt from a rescue, rather than buying a baby. Sulcatas are frequently found at animal adoption centers after being surrendered by owners who were unprepared to care for them.

Usually, rescues and people looking to rehome their tortoises have cheaper Sulcata tortoise prices than breeders. Depending on the organization, rescue tortoises can be bought for $25-$75.

Lifespan

Like many tortoises, the Sulcata species can live for a very long time.

In the wild, generally the Sulcata tortoise lifespan is between 50 and 80 years.

As pets, where they are given a nutritious diet and protection from diseases, parasites and predators, it is not unheard of for them to live for 100 years.

African spurred tortoises are very healthy when cared for properly.

However, they can still develop certain health problems from poor husbandry or beginner mistakes. The most common health issues are:

  • Pyramiding scutes
  • Bacterial infections
  • Respiratory infections
  • Bladder stones

Pyramiding scutes are caused by low humidity or a diet too high in protein and fat. These factors make the scales of their shell warp and become domed. To prevent this, they should be kept in an environment with at least 40% humidity, fed mostly grasses and soaked multiple times each week.

Fungal or bacterial infections are caused by high humidity and are characterized by crusty, flaky, or discolored patches on the shell and skin.

Symptoms of respiratory infections include foam or bubbles around the nose and mouth, wheezing, coughing or open-mouthed breathing. Respiratory infections are triggered by a combination of low temperatures and high humidity.

Feeding lots of foods high in oxalates can lead to kidney and bladder stones. Bladder stones are difficult to diagnose and sometimes show no symptoms at all, making prevention key. Avoid feeding foods like spinach, kale, beets and chard.

A healthy tortoise will have a strong appetite, be active and adventurous, and have a healthy shell, eyes and skin.

Size

Spur Thigh Tortoise
The Sulcata tortoise is the third largest species in the world, and the largest species in Africa.

Full size sulcata tortoise easily grow to over 30 inches, with weights reaching upwards of 150 pounds. Some large males can even top 200 pounds!

Their giant size makes full grown Sulcatas nearly invulnerable against common predators.

However, young tortoises start out much smaller and are at risk of predation from eagles, jackals, monitor lizards, domestic dogs and cats.

At hatching, African spurred tortoises are only 2 inches long and weigh just 1.2 ounces.

One year old sulcata tortoise sizes can range from 6 to 8 inches.

They are slow growers and can take 10 years to reach their full adult size of over 30 inches. While they can continue to grow even after 10 years old, this additional growth is so small that it is rarely noticeable.

Sadly, some owners will purchase a baby without researching their full adult size. As a result, some are surrendered to shelters when they get too big for their owners to handle.

When considering buying a Sulcata, it is important to take into account how big they can become.

Make sure you have the resources necessary to care for a potentially 3-foot-long, 200-pound reptile. Keeping a reptile of this size has its challenges! It makes moving, lifting, and transporting your pet very difficult (sometimes impossible).

Enclosures must be very sturdy and escape-proof, especially since this large species likes to burrow.

Diet

Sulcata tortoises are strictly herbivorous and graze on grasses, shrubs, and weeds.

The diet of Sulcata tortoises is primarily made up of grasses, shrubs and flowers. Most of their time is spent grazing and searching for food, which can be hard to come by in deserts.

In the wild they are able to survive with very little water in the harsh Sahara Desert. They get most of their moisture from eating succulent vegetation.

Though they are adapted to dry climates, they should always be provided with a large, shallow dish of clean water to soak in and drink from. Empty and refill the dish daily, especially in hot weather as it evaporates.

The best food for sulcata tortoise includes a variety of fresh grasses, leafy greens and vegetables. To stay healthy 90% of their diet should consist of greens, grasses, and weeds.

The other 10% should be made up of vegetables. Fruits should only be given as treats.

Sulcatas will spend most of their time grazing on lawn grass, so be sure not to treat your yard with pesticides or fertilizers.

An important part of their diet is calcium. This supplement helps them grow healthy bones and shells, so must be provided for proper development. You can dust their food with a calcium supplement powder or give them a cuttlebone to gnaw on at their leisure.

Sulcata tortoise diet sheet
Safe foods Unsafe foods
  • Grape leaves
  • Prickly pear cactus
  • Grass
  • Timothy hay
  • Hibiscus
  • Geraniums
  • Kale
  • Mustard greens
  • Spinach
  • Eggplant
  • Avocado
  • Tomatoes

Care

Sulcata

This pet is a lifelong commitment.

Potential keepers should know that these tortoises need a large, outdoor space to roam, graze and dig. In addition, they can live for over 100 years, meaning you may need to find someone to care for your tortoise if you are no longer able to.

Sulcata tortoises are great for experienced hobbyists who feel ready to take on a long-term pet.

Many reptile keepers love them for their easy care and friendly personalities. They have simple husbandry needs, generally have few health problems, and are safe to have around young children.

Beginners who are interested in this reptile should consider adopting a Sulcata tortoise from a rescue.

Habitat

They live in the sandy deserts of the Sahara and Sahel of Africa. They are most active at dawn and dusk, and build large burrows for protection against excessive heat.

When kept as a pet, this species needs hot, dry conditions that mimic its natural environment.

  • Enclosure Size: 200 square feet and 2.5 feet tall.
  • Substrate: 4 inches of a peat moss and vermiculite mixture.
  • Décor: Plants, logs and burrows.
  • Temperature: 80-95°F.
  • Humidity: 40-55%.

SIMILAR: Russian Tortoise: Lifespan, Size & Beginner Care Sheet

Enclosure

Sulcata tortoises larger than 8 inches need to be kept outside in a pen of at least 200 square feet.

Sink all fences around the enclosure at least a foot underground to prevent escapes, otherwise they might burrow their way out of the pen.

You can build burrows for your Sulcata to use, though it may still choose to dig its own.

The pen should have plenty of grass, edible bushes and flowers for them to graze on. In regions with temperatures under 60°F, include an insulated kennel for cooler days.

Sulcatas need daytime temperatures between 80 and 95°F, with a basking spot of 100°F. At night, temperatures can dip to 60°F.

This species is well suited to living outdoors in states like Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas and parts of California. Sulcata tortoise temperatures should consistently remain hot and dry.

Ambient humidity should remain between 40-55%, which is common year-round in the Southwestern United States.

Your tortoise will need UVB radiation to build a strong, healthy shell. UVB deficiency is rarely a problem in pets kept outdoors, as they get all the UV rays they need from sunlight.

Substrate

The right substrate is a very important part of setting up a good Sulcata tortoise enclosure.

A good substrate will allow your tortoise to safely exhibit their natural behaviors of digging and burrowing, while staying clean and healthy.

They dig tunnels to escape the heat and dryness of the desert. Pet species still share these burrowing instincts, so Sulcatas should be housed on a thick layer of loose substrate.

The best Sulcata tortoise substrate is a sand/soil mix free from pesticides and fertilizers.

Baby Care

Baby Sulcatas are more delicate than adults and need slightly different care to grow and thrive.

To start with babies are highly vulnerable to predators like dogs, cats and birds. To protect them you need to keep them in an indoor enclosure for the first year of their life.

House your baby in a 120-gallon glass tank or tortoise table with 6 inches of aspen pellets as a substrate. Spot-clean the bedding daily and change it completely once each month to discourage the growth of harmful bacteria.

Their enclosure should have as much floorspace as possible to give them room to explore and burrow. Use hollow logs or wooden boxes as hiding areas.

Daytime enclosure temperatures should be 90-95°F on one end of the tank and 80-85°F on the other end. At night, temperatures can drop by a few degrees but should remain above 70°F.

These environmental parameters are extremely important to the health of a baby Sulcata.

Babies also need much higher ambient humidity than adults. Use a hygrometer to measure the humidity in their tank, and aim to keep it between 65-85%.

When housed indoors they will also need a UVB bulb fixed no more than 24 inches from the substrate.

Baby Sulcata tortoise diets are very similar to adult diets. Unlike reptiles like bearded dragons, this species eats a similar diet throughout their entire lifespan. They should be fed a diet high in greens, grasses and hay, just like an adult. Feed them daily and replace any uneaten food after 24 hours to prevent mold.

Soak them for 15-30 minutes once each week in water no deeper than their chin.

Beginner FAQs

How Fast Do Sulcata Tortoises Grow?

Sulcata tortoises grow very slowly and have a slow metabolism.

Their long lifespan means they can take 10 years to reach their adult size.

Diet, temperature, and enclosure will all factor into how quickly your pet will grow.

Pets tend to grow faster than wild tortoises as they have reliable access to high-quality food. Pets usually reach their adult size in 6-10 years. In the wild, they take nearly twice as long to reach their full size at closer to 15-20 years.

Are Sulcata Tortoises High Maintenance?

They are not high maintenance pets, especially when compared to other types of exotic reptiles like snakes.

The most demanding part of Sulcata tortoise care is building an outdoor enclosure.

This species needs an outdoor enclosure that is over 200 square feet. If outside temperatures fall below 60°F, they also need a spacious indoor kennel with supplemental heating.

After their enclosure is set up, caring for them is a straightforward process.

Do Sulcata Tortoises Like To Be Handled?

Tipping the scales at 70-200 pounds, adults are usually much too large to be handled,

A baby might be small enough to hold, but handling is extremely stressful for them and should be avoided unless necessary.

There are plenty of ways to interact with your tortoise, aside from holding it.

Adults often learn to recognize their owners and can be trained to take food from your hand. Many enjoy having their neck or shell scratched.

African Spurred Tortoise

The African Spurred Tortoise and Spur Thigh Tortoise are just common names for the Sulcata.

They are both the same species, Centrochelys sulcata.

African spurred tortoises have several behavioral adaptations that help them survive in the desert.

They are very slow-moving, which helps them maximize the amount of energy they get out of their food.

Adults are very rarely attacked by other animals. To escape predators, they rely on their large size, tough shells, and thick, leathery skin for protection.

Sulcata tortoises are also avid burrowers. Most burrows are close to 3 feet deep, but some can reach 10 feet or more! These burrows stay relatively cool and humid compared to the surrounding desert, letting them escape the hottest and driest parts of the day.

Pet Sulcata tortoise love to dig and will often excavate their own burrows.

They should be housed alone, as they are highly territorial and aggressive toward each other.

Summary

Sulcata tortoises are giant, slow and intelligent reptiles.

They are easy to spot because of their large scutes, oval shells and protective spurs. These spurs are the reason behind their common names, the African spurred tortoise and Spur Thigh Tortoise.

The Sulcata tortoise is the third largest breed in the world.

Full size this species can easily grow to over 30 inches, with weights over 150 pounds.

Before buying one, keepers should be aware that males can grow to 200 pounds. They can also live for over 100 years, making them a lifelong commitment.

These friendly, outgoing tortoises are one of the most personable breeds around. They are a fantastic pet for experienced hobbyists who feel ready to take on a long-term pet.

What do you love about these gentle giants? Let us know in the comments.

About Nigel Robert

Nigel Robert Nigel is the managing editor at More Reptiles. He is a lifelong reptile lover, biologist and wildlife consultant who brings a decade of experience working in reptile conservation and consultancy. He joined our team in 2020 and when he’s not reviewing reptile care sheets, he’s out looking for reptiles in the wild!

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