our sulcata tortoise

Sulcata tortoises, aka the African Spurred Tortoise, are the 3rd largest tortoise species in the world. And how my 5 year old convinced me we needed one, I dunno…

But, surprisingly, our sulcata has a great personality and I’ve grown quite fond of her. She comes out of her pen to greet us and he follows me around the yard while I’m gardening to eat the scraps.

What we feed our sulcata

We grow a majority of our tortoise’s food and try to keep her diet as varied as possible.


She has access to a decent amount of grass and weeds. Her favorite weed is something we call ‘Florida snow’ or ‘Florida pusley’ (Richardia Grandiflora). Whenever it is flowering, she heads right towards it and chows down.

sulcata eating Florida pusley


I have an area in my yard that I use just to grow the tortoise’s food. I usually just buy a bunch of seeds and toss them in the planter and feed her the greens.

what else

  • Mulberry leaves
  • Cactus Paddles
  • Figs
  • Hibiscus flowers.
  • Lettuce: We have several different varieties of lettuce growing at all times of the year.
  • False Roselle leaves and flowers
  • Peppers
  • Sprouts

how fast do sulcata tortoises grow

sulcata tortoise Jan 2020

When I buy seeds, I get them from Seedsnow. They have a lot of variety packs.

For the tortoises, I get the Lettuce and Leafy Green variety pack which contains 15 varieties of greens the tortoises eat: Arugula, Collard, Endive, Mustard, Spinach and several varieties of Kale and Lettuce.

our Sulcata enclosure


We used concrete pavers as the foundation of the pen. This prevents the tortoises from digging out and predators (raccoons and opossums) from digging in.

Sulcata tortoises love to dig. Larger tortoises can dig 30 foot long tunnels…not too sure how we are going to deal with that…


The walls were 2 foot high are made from 4×4 garden timbers and was filled with sandy soil from the yard. Sulcata Tortoises are native to the Southern Sahara Desert, which led us to believe these tortoises were desert animals and that our sandy Florida soil would be perfect for them. But that was so wrong. Sulcatas roam on grasslands. Their native land is a special little ecosystem south of the desert and north of the Savanna grass lands, which makes their climate more arid and less dry than the desert.

After learning our tortoises were suffering from dehydration we added sod, wood chips (mulch) and orchard moss. We keep everything watered well to serve as another source of moisture.


A cover is required to protect the tortoises from predators and from climbing out. We used an aluminum frame wrapped in chicken wire. It is on hinges and we prop it open with a pole.


We placed a 1″ deep dinner platter in the pen and keep it full of water. I have never seen the tortoises use it, and once they suffered from dehydration, I soak our tortoise in warm water every other day for 15 minutes.


Even when the tortoises are left to run free in the yard, they always run for cover, so we provided them with a hide (upside down bin). They like to sleep in at night.

Heat Lamp
The tortoise pen receives plenty of sunlight so we don’t have a need for a UV light, but they do need the heat. To do this we used a 5 gallon bucket and a heat lamp. We cut a hole in the bottom of the bucket for the cord and placed the heat lamp inside. We then sealed the hole with waterproof sealant and placed it upside down on the lid of the pen.

Watch the Sulcata tortoise pen building video here.

Sulcata Tortoises: Ants
Here in Florida, we have an abundance of bugs, especially ants. As much as I don’t want to use pesticides, the ants have overrun our property and my kids are constantly walking through ant hills and getting bit.

I tried sprinkling diatomaceous earth on the ant hills, but the ants would just relocate a foot away. Then we discovered permethrin. It is an insecticide that lasts for 2-3 months and kills insects that come in contact with it. I spray it around the tortoise pen and it is safe enough to spray directly on chickens to kill any love or mites.

In addition to permethrin, we also use Orthene on ant hills.

Kill ants without Chemicals
If you don’t feel comfortable using chemicals to kill ants in your tortoise pen you can take a plastic water bottle, fill it with:

spoonful of borax,
a bunch of sugar,
a spoonful of honey and
And enough water to be able to shake it up
Put on the lid and shake it up until mixed thoroughly. Then, carefully cut some holes in the bottle, large enough ants to enter. Lay the bottle on it’s side making sure the mixture doesn’t leak out the holes. Some ants will drown and others will take it back to their nest and the borax will kill them.

what happened to the other tortoise?

The smaller tortoise was still not eating, so we placed this powder in a syringe with water. Twice a day, we pried his mouth open with a flat head screwdriver and squirted the mix into his mouth.
Unfortunately, the large tortoise would not eat. When we attempted to open his mouth, he locked himself in his shell and not come out. 2 days later, he died.

Over the next few days, the remaining tortoise was able to keep his eyes open more often and began eating on his own. We feed him wet lettuce and cucumbers to help him hydrate and sprinkled the critical care powder on it for added nutrients. He continues to do well.

Where are Sulcata Tortoises from?

What is a Sulcata’s natural habitat?

Sulcata’s are from the Sahara desert, in Northern Africa, but more specifically, a 1.2 million square mile are called the Sahel: the area between the Sahara Desert and the Jungles of Africa. The humidity levels are around 30%, but can drop to 10% in the dry season. It is hot, sunny, dry, and the yearly temperature ranges between 77-110F degrees. This area receives very little and sporadic rainfall, and has seen several decimating droughts, one lasting 20 years, that lead to the death of many people and animals.

What Temperature is best for Sulcata Tortoises?

We bring our Sulcatas in when the nightly temperatures fall below 60 degrees. When they get larger, they can be housed with a heater and thermostat.

Do my tortoises need to be directly in the sun for UV?

No. Make sure you provide them a shady, cool spot to hide. Even if they stay in the shade, they will still absorb UV rays as it refracts and bounces around.

Why is my Sulcata Foaming at the mouth? Why is my Sulcata spitting bubbles?

Your tortoise is probably too hot. Foaming and spitting bubbles is a tortoise’s last ditch effort to preventing overheating. If you see your tortoise foaming at the mouth, remove them from the heat immediately as they will not survive much longer in this state. For under $20 you can buy a temperature gun to check the temperature of different areas in your pen. If your turtle is foaming at the mouth and is not too hot, it may have eaten something toxic.

Dehydration in sulcatas

We began with two Sulcata tortoises, and unfortunately, one of the Sulcata tortoises died due to improper care.

Being that sulcatas are from the Sahara Desert, we wrongly assumed they liked dry terrains…but soon I noticed their eyes seemed to be stuck shut, and after some research, I realized they were severely dehydrated. This is when I learned that although sulcatas are from the Sahara desert, they live on the southeastern side in a little strip that grasslands, not a desert wasteland.

The sandy, dry enclosure we spent so long building was all wrong and we didn’t give them nearly enough water.

We soaked them in water a few hours the next day and they weren’t improving.

dehydrated tortoises – eyes stuck shut

I took both tortoises to the vet who suggested we give them an injection of water to hydrate them, called a SubQ shot.

The smaller tortoise received a shot between his front leg and neck, but the larger tortoise would not come out of his shell. We tried all we could, but the vet was never able to administer the shot.

The vet gave us this Critical care powder (a recovery food) and a syringe to feed to our severely dehydrated sulcata tortoises.

When we got home, the tortoise that was given the injection was walking around, drinking, and eating. The tortoise that did not receive the injection died the next day.

Then I stumbled on a post in a tortoise forum saying reptiles can just shut down for awhile, and look completely dead.  Even a vet chimed in and said they keep all ‘dead’ reptiles in holding for 24 hours just to make sure they’re really dead.