Animal Information

The African Spurred Thigh Tortoise (Centrochelys or Geochelone sulcata)

This species is listed on Appendix II as vulnerable according to the IUCN. Many populations of G. sulcata are rapidly disappearing in the wild. In fact, there are ten times the Sulcatas in private ownership than in the wild.

The African Spurred Tortoise (Centrochelys sulcata), also called the Sulcata Tortoise, is a species desert-dwelling tortoise whose range extends along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert from Senegal and Mauritania, east through Mali, Chad, the Sudan and Ethiopia to Eritrea which inhabits the southern edge of the Sahara desert, in Africa.

Centrochelys sulcata was firs described by Miller in 1779. African Spurred Tortoise Its specific name Sulcata is from the Latin word sulcus meaning “furrow” and refers to the furrows on the tortoise’s scales.

The African Spurred Tortoise is the third largest tortoise in the world and the largest mainland tortoise.

The other two largest tortoises that surpass it in size are the giant island species called the Aldabra Giant Tortoise (Geochelone gigantea) which resides on the islands of the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles and the Galapagos Tortoise (Geochelone nigra) found on the Galapagos Islands near Ecuador.

One of the most popular tortoises in the pet trade is the African spurred tortoise, because of its outgoing and animated personality along with its availability and hardiness in captivity. The “spurred” part of its name is derived from the large, pointed scales on the tortoise’s forelimbs.

You Say Centrochelys I Say Geochelone

But They Are Both The Same Animal!?!?!?

Is the African Spurred Thigh Tortoise a Centrochelys or Geochelone? The scientific community is starting to separate the tortoise from the geochelone genus thus giving them a new name. This is based on the fact there are five known subspecies based on locality.

The home range of G. sulcata is an approximately 250-mile-wide strip of land that straddles the 15-degrees north latitude, which is a line from Senegal to the small country Eritrea, just north of Ethiopia.

Sulcatas need to graze most of the day.

This relatively narrow strip of territory traverses the North African continent roughly corresponding with the transition zone between the Sahara Desert and the savannah/forest area known as the Sudan region that lies south of the Sahara. This transition zone is called the Sahel, and it is a very unique biozone that features short shrubs, grasses, and dwarfed trees. It is not quite desert and not quite a savannah. 

Because of its location, the Sahel can be a desert environment during some years, and savannah during others, depending on the prevailing weather patterns. During any given year, it can receive 5 to 20 inches of rain, usually during the monsoon season that typically lasts from July to November.

The Sahel is not only a transitional zone for the weather between the desert and the Sudan region, but it is also one in regard to soil fertility, as well. The soil of the Sahel is only slightly more fertile than the desert but less so than the Sudan region. This is important because even during times of plentiful rain, the vegetation of the Sahel remains stunted because of the soil’s low fertility.

Sulcatas need places to hide in order to feel safe and comfortable.

Sulcata tortoises dig extensive burrows during the monsoon season, in preparation for when they will need to seek refuge from the extreme heat of the dry season, as well as escape from the high midday temperatures that occur during the rest of the year. Sulcata burrows can extend horizontally well over 30 feet, with a vertical depth of more than 20 feet in many cases.

The burrow provides a safe environment with relatively stable temperatures for a tortoise, despite the huge temperature fluctuations that occur outside of the Savannah. The depth of the burrow also provides humidity levels that are commonly over 50 percent.

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Sulcata burrows usually include multiple chambers and connecting tunnels, and other animals may seek refuge in them along with the tortoises.

Like most tortoises, sulcatas are opportunistic in the wild. They feed mostly on the abundant growth that follows the rainy season, consuming grasses, broad-leaf weeds, leaves and fruit from trees and bushes.

After the wet season, they will feed on almost any organic matter they can find, including dried plants and leaves that remain during the dry season. During times of little to no plant growth, sulcatas have been known to also consume small branches, tree bark, animal feces and carrion.

During the height of the dry season, sulcatas remain mostly inactive, and they are seldom if ever, seen outside their burrows. When the rainy season arrives they will emerge to forage and replace lost reserves for reproduction.

Male Sulcatas tend to be larger than the females.

There is a distinct correlation between the number of sulcata eggs deposited and the size of the eggs. As a rule, smaller clutch sizes generally result in larger eggs, while larger clutch sizes result in smaller eggs. Depending on the time of year they were deposited, sulcata eggs commonly take 100 to 200 days for the hatchlings to emerge.

Sulcata Housing and Care

Keeping a pet sulcata tortoise is straightforward, but there are some crucial considerations, the main one being this tortoise’s large size, mentioned earlier, along with the fact that sulcatas are very active. It can take a sulcata more than 20 years to reach its full size, but with good care, it can attain it much sooner, and coupled with its activity level, a large sulcata can quickly become a big problem if its keeper is not prepared.

There are many tortoise rescues that are overwhelmed with large sulcatas that previous owners could not care for because they did realize how much time and money is involved in maintaining a full-grown sulcata.

Sulcatas breed very well in captivity. Males reach sexual maturity when their carapace is over one foot in diameter. Sulcatas are very aggressive toward each other, especially during breeding time.

Click to read about Growth And Pyramiding In The African Tortoise.

Sulcata Tortoise Breeding and Egg Info.

Males ram each other repeatedly and sometimes end up with bloody limbs and heads. Copulation can take place anytime from June through March. However, it occurs most frequently after a rainy season in September through November. When mating, the male first circles the female and will occasionally ram her with his shell.

After mating, the female’s body will swell with eggs and she will decrease her food intake. She becomes increasingly restless as she looks for good places to make a nest. She begins by kicking loose dirt out of the way and eventually creates a depression, which she urinates and defecates in. She does this to create humidity and beneficial bacteria that her offspring will need. Click here to read more about Tortoise Poo and Gut Flora.

She digs until the depression reaches approximately 2 inches in diameter and 5-7 inches deep. This may take her up to five hours. Four or five nests may be dug before she finally selects one to lay her eggs in.

Once she selects one, an egg first every three minutes. Her clutch size may reach 15-30 eggs, sometimes more. The eggs are white and spherical with brittle shells. After the eggs third largest, the female will fill in her nest. It may take her more than an hour to cover all the eggs up.

Sulcatas are very aggressive towards each other. This aggression starts from the time they hatch. Ramming into each other and attempts to flip each other over are common behaviors by males.

They are most active at dusk or dawn and generally bask in the morning to raise their body temperature after the chill.

Sulcatas and Conservation

This species is listed on Appendix II as vulnerable according to the IUCN. Many populations of G. sulcata are rapidly disappearing, especially in Mali, Chad, Niger, and Ethiopia. In Senegal there are still limited populations in the north and north-east, but there is a lot of overgrazing and desertification here too that is wiping this tortoise out.

Some African cultures regard the Sulcata as a mediator between men and the gods. As a result, the tortoise is often kept in villages to intercede between the Head of the village and the Ancestors. In Dogon countries today, the tortoise is kept with the village leader at all times to allow him to communicate with the village ancestors.

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In Senegal, these tortoises, are signs of virtue, happiness, fertility, and longevity. Therefore, it is easier to promote programs that support the conservation of the tortoise. The Senegalese respect the symbolic nature of the tortoise and are very important in helping conservationists ensure reproduction and repopulation of it.

This species is also eaten by nomadic tribes and used to make longevity potions in Japan. They are also captured and kept as pets in Europe and North America. It is mostly young tortoises that are captured for trade and as it takes 15 years for them to reach maturity, it is very unlikely that they are able to reproduce themselves and therefore could face extinction.

Phytophagous means an animal that feeds on plants.

The Sulcata is phytophagous. There are few phytophagous animals currently in the Sahel ecosystem and fewer and fewer hoofed animals. In areas where herds of domestic animals are abundant, this species appears to be more numerous as evidenced by the burrows it digs.

The burrows facilitate composting in the soil because the Sahel soils are poor, and the African spurred tortoise stirs them up and provides manure. Its defecation contain seeds of Gramineae, date palms (Balanithes aegyptica) or of a small melon. Its burrow is a seed bank and when that caves in, the ground is mixed and creates new vegetation.

Capturing of Geochelone sulcata for international trade has become more intense recently. They increased from 461 in 1990 and 3703 in 1995 to 5097 in 1996. Furthermore, the species has suffered a marked decline in the past 75 years because of the advance of the desert, which has decreased the area of its distribution and because of the destruction of its habitat owing to the sharp increase of the human population and herds of domestic animals.

Several ethnic groups in the Sahel, especially the nomadic tribes, eat the African spurred tortoise, which is a protein supplement in this region of the Sahel, among the poorest in the world.

The African spurred tortoise, symbol of longevity and object of veneration, is a good-luck charm and, for this reason, is raised in captivity. This is a tradition among the Dogons in Mali. This tradition is reinforced by the more modern desire to have a pet turtle.

This is the case in Senegal, where there are many African spurred tortoises in homes. 3.2 Legal international trade. For several decades, Geochelone sulcata has been traded locally and internationally.

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