Sulcata tortoises are large tortoises, originating from the grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, adults may weigh up to20kg, grow to over 70cm long, and live over 50 years so it is essential not to overestimate the space and resources needed to look after these tortoises. It is important to note that these tortoises do not hibernate.
Tortoises make poor vivarium subjects. Ideally a floor pen or tortoise table should be created. This needs to have solid sides (1 foot high) for most tortoises. Many are made out of wood or plastic. A large an area as possible should be provided, but as the size increases extra basking sites will need to be provided. For a small juvenile at least 90 cm (3 feet) long x 30 cm (1 foot) wide is recommended. This is required to enable a thermal gradient to be created along the length of the tank (hot to cold).
Good ventilation is required and additional ventilation holes may need to be created.
Hides are required to provide some security. Artificial plants, cardboard boxes, plant pots, logs or commercially available hides can be used. They should be placed both at the warm and cooler ends of the tank.
Substrates suitable for housing tortoises include newspaper, Astroturf, and some of the commercially available substrates. Natural substrate such as soil may also be used to allow for digging. It is important that the substrates either cannot be eaten, or if they are, do not cause blockages as this can prove fatal. Wood chip based substrates should never be used for this reason.
The enclosure should be cleaned out at least once a week with a suitable disinfectant and spot cleaned daily to help prevent disease.
Temperatures and humidity
Reptiles are ectothermic so a heat source is required.
Typically a spot area is created using a spot bulb, providing a basking temperature of 35-40.0 C. This should be kept on all day. Temperatures must be measured to ensure the tank is not overheating especially in a small vivarium. The cool end should be maintained at 25.0 C.
Background heat can be provided with a heat mat (on the back wall) a tubular heater, a heat plate or a ceramic bulb. This should be set on a thermostat so that the overnight temperature does not drop below 20.0 C.
Temperatures should be measured with a maximum/minimum thermometer. During the cold winter months careful checking is required to ensure the heat sources are keeping the tank sufficiently warm. Heat sources should be guarded to prevent thermal burns.
Humidity should be checked with a hygrometer and kept low-moderate.
Sulcata tortoises must be exposed to UV-b light.
The best sources are the mercury vapour lamps which give out heat as well. This will need to be on all day for 12 hours and at an appropriate distance from the tortoise as recommended by the manufacturer. A small branch or rock can be placed below the basking site. Care should be taken using mercury vapour bulbs in a small vivarium as temperatures may become too high and these lamps cannot be fitted to a thermostat.
Alternatively other UV-b bulbs are available (please ask for further information on UV light in reptiles).
All UV-b bulbs should be checked regularly for their UV output and should be changed at least as frequently as manufacturer’s instructions.
It is also important to expose your tortoise to natural UV light during the summer months and building an outside enclosure is recommended for the long term health of your tortoise.
In general the happiest tortoise is the solitary tortoise. Adults can be maintained in single sex groups of up to five in suitable accommodation. Should breeding be required the males can be exposed to the females during the summer months.
What to feed
Their diet should consist largely of grasses and hay, with vegetation such as weeds making up the remainder of the diet. Suitable weeds include sow thistles, dandelions, milk thistles, plantains, chickweed, dock and bindweed. Other plants and flowers such as sedum, hibiscus, nasturtium and honeysuckle are also suitable. Any plants fed should be free of any pesticides or fertilizer. Salad and vegetables should only be offered if these are not available.
Supplementation is important, particularly with supermarket bought goods and a vitamin and mineral powder with high calcium content is required. It is important to ensure the phosphorous content is low. Cuttlefish is often fed to tortoises and although it is to be encouraged it should not be relied upon as a calcium source.
Water should always be available and a container is required which will allow the tortoise to submerge completely. This should be changed daily. Bathing is also to be encouraged and twice a week the tortoise should be placed in a shallow bath of warm water (usually a cat litter tray suffices).
All reptiles can potentially carry Salmonella.
However it is rarely a cause of illness in reptiles and treatment is not required.
It can be transmitted to people (especially young children or those who are immunocompromised) so good hygiene after handing the reptile is important. Generally washing your hands in soap is sufficient. There are commercially available disinfectants that can be used as an alternative.
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