Get to know one of the most popular breeds of pet tortoise.

Text by Charlene Bobis
Photos by Jeffrey C. Lim

At first glance, this big tortoise is quite cute: slow-moving, with a peaceful expression and a non-violent demeanor. But there are more reasons to like it. Owner Jaime Uy Lim explains that the African spurred tortoise (Centrochelys sulcata), also called the Sulcata tortoise, is the third-largest species of continental tortoise in the world after the Galapagos tortoise (from the Galapagos Islands) and Aldabra Giant Tortoise (from the Seychelles Islands).

Caution: CITES II

Classification Jaime cautions that the Sulcata are considered CITES II or “vulnerable.” As such, there are special considerations for bringing them into the country; their trade is restricted and you need a permit. He and his partners source their tortoises from a reputable exporter straight from Africa.

Care and Breeding

Jaime and his partners have bred Sulcata tortoises for nearly a decade now, and have kept the same for over 20 years. “We prefer to have adult specimens to achieve a varied bloodline, as we are very interested in breeding them. My passion is always to breed and propagate what I have,” he says, adding that they are easy to breed as they do not hibernate. “Price to size ratio, I think they are the most reasonably priced tortoises available, assuming that you have space,” Jamie says. He is, however, careful in selecting customers. Sulcata tortoises are easy to care for, and much information on their care and breeding is available.

Jaime says, “Like all other tortoises, their weight is a major indicator of good health.” Other indicators are bright and alert eyes, a healthy appetite—especially when food is given—firm and almost whole stools that are not wet and soft, and no physical lesions or parasites seen on them. And yes, they are as amiable as they look. Sulcata tortoises “…learn to know the humans who feed and interact with them. During ideal days, they usually go near the person feeding them. They react when we slowly move our fingers on and under their shell. Captive-bred tortoises are more interactive with humans; they don’t hide their heads in their shells. Though our adult males tend to be territorial, especially during the breeding period, females are more docile,” Jaime explains.

Protein precaution Jaime considers their good appetite and rapid growth to be part of their charm—and hobbyists agree that feeding them is an interesting thing. “I would consider Sulcata as the number one tortoise in the country,” he says, adding that keepers tend to enjoy it when they see their pets eating. Sulcata tortoises are mainly herbivorous, but should not be overfed, especially if the food contains protein; watch out in particular for beans and dog food. This kind of food can “…make their growth abnormal and (cause) the carapace to become uneven.”

According to Jaime, adults usually reach 24 (females) to 36 (males) inches (in) in length (60-90 centemeters or cm) and can weight 100-200 pounds (45-91 kg). Hatchlings are 2-3 inches fresh from the egg and can very quickly reach 4-6 in (20-25 cm) within the first two years of their lives. It’s a long-lived creature, with lifespans ranging from 50-150 years.

Climate Control

The good news is, even though they originated from Africa and are supposedly desert tortoises, they thrive in the Philippines, even when kept in an open area. Some hobbyists think they should be kept indoors and dry all the time, Jaime notes. “This is not true; I keep my Sulcatas outdoors but under a roof to keep them away from morning dew…” They recommend that the tortoises have access to water but should not be housed too near it, as local temperatures tend to make water evaporate faster, making the environment too humid for them.

They should be able to soak when they want to, but make sure there is a dry place where they can spend most of their time. “Sunlight is very important for tortoises; they need it to convert calcium to properly form their shells and more importantly, digest their food,” he adds. He notes though that they should not be kept outside during the rainy season so that they won’t get colds as in the wild, they are used to arid climates. But they may have some difficulty adapting in a humid tropical country, especially for very young tortoises. “They prefer dry areas and not to be exposed to drafts.

Constant warm temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius is ideal.” As for their diet, “They are herbivores and eat various types of grass and plants. No special diet is required. The challenge is how to balance their water intake and the food they eat. Too much wet vegetables and fruits are to be avoided. These tortoises live (on) fibrous succulents and grass in their native habitat,” Jaime explains.

This appeared in Animal Scene’s July 2015 issue.