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Sulcata Tortoise Lifespan: Here’s How Long They Live

Rachel Giordano

By Rachel Giordano

sulcata tortoise in a vet clinic

The Sulcata Tortoise, also known as the African Spurred Tortoise, is among the most popular tortoise to own as a pet. They are the largest mainland tortoises, reaching a whopping 100–150 pounds, and some may even reach 200 pounds. These amazing creatures have tan and brown shells and large scales. They are intelligent and curious with lively personalities, which are interesting characteristics for a tortoise that makes them a popular pet. However, with their large size, one must have a large space to accommodate this tortoise, as they spend a great deal of time grazing and are enormous.

Let’s explore the Sulcata Tortoise lifespan and how to properly care for one.

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Sulcata Tortoise Average Lifespan

The average lifespan for these amazing tortoises in captivity ranges from 54–150 years. Needless to say, they are a lifelong commitment for someone considering owning one. Certain factors play a role in their longevity while in captivity, such as their diet, how much they’re fed, if they receive enough exercise and medical checkups, and so on.

African Spurred (Sulcata) Tortoise
Image Credit: poeticpenguin, Shutterstock

How Long Does the Sulcata Tortoise Live in the Wild?

In the wild, these tortoises can live 70–100 years. They thrive in the harsh climates of the desert and are extremely hardy reptiles. They are native to the Sahara Desert and the Sahel, which contain semi-arid grasslands, scrub, and savannah regions in Northern Africa. They can dig burrows up to 10 feet deep in the ground for shelter from the hot, harsh, and arid habitat.

How to Care for Your Sulcata Tortoise for a Long Lifespan

Certain factors play a role in their longevity, and if you’re considering owning one of the fascinating reptiles, you’ll need to know how to properly take care of one. Here are some specifics.

1. Feeding & Diet

These tortoises’ diet consists of grasses, flowers (rose petals, hibiscus, geraniums), weeds, and cacti in the native habitat. Tortoises are herbivores, meaning they eat plants, grasses, and hay. It’s important not to feed them a high protein diet, as too much protein can cause a bumpy and pyramiding shell, along with other health issues that can shorten its lifespan. Legumes and some dark, leafy greens are high in protein and should be avoided.

The Sulcata Tortoise also requires a high-fiber diet, which they get from grasses. The best diet is predominately grass (pesticide-free), mixed with edible weeds, leaves, and flowers. You can give them occasional kale and spinach as a treat, but keep in mind these have high protein content and should be given sparingly.

Sulcata tortoise munching on a green leaf
Image Credit: seasoning_17, Shutterstock

2. Environment

Their native habitat includes the deserts and grasslands of northern Africa. They are equipped to handle these hot, harsh, and semi-arid environments, which should be replicated in captivity. They escape the heat and absorb water by burrowing up to 10 feet into the ground. In captivity, the soil they have access to must be soft enough for them to dig efficiently into the ground—if the soil is too firm, the Sulcata Tortoise will not be able to dig adequately—if it’s too soft, the burrows will fall apart.

3. Care

Caring for these tortoises involves replicating their natural habitat as much as possible and feeding an appropriate herbivore diet that consists of 90% grasses and hay, edible flowers, and shrubs. Avoid alfalfa hay due to its high oxalate content, which can cause stone formations in the bladder and kidneys.

To properly care for a Sulcata Tortoise, you’ll need to build an enclosure big enough for him to graze. Ideally, you should start him indoors until after the first year until he’s big enough to escape predators. You’ll also need to keep him indoors when the weather is cold and damp, as their natural habitat is anything but; however, this may prove challenging as they grow to their massive size.

Small tortoises can be kept in an aquarium with a substrate (preferably reptibark, reptile carpet, or newspaper), providing 24-7 access to water and plenty of hidey-holes.

The outdoor enclosure should consist of access to shade, housing from inclement weather (such as a doghouse), and ample grass for grazing. Bear in mind that a Sulcata Tortoise may tear up your yard when burrowing.

sulcata tortoise eating water spinach
Image Credit: candra ardhian, Shutterstock

4. Cleaning

You can soak your Sulcata Tortoise once or twice a week with shallow, warm water for 15–30 minutes to clean the shell and help him to stay hydrated. You can also use a very soft toothbrush to clean dirt out of any grooves from the shell. If you have a baby or juvenile, you can soak them up to three times a week for 5-10  minutes because they tend to dry out quicker.

5. Pairing/Breeding

Mating typically occurs between June and March but is more common in September and late November after the rainy season. They can safely start breeding at 10–15 years old. The female will begin wandering for a nesting site approximately 60 days after mating, and the process can take up to 2 weeks to find the perfect spot. She’ll build a nest 2 feet wide and 3–6 inches deep. Then she’ll lay an egg every 3 minutes until she has a clutch of 15–30 eggs. She will then cover her eggs, which can take up to an hour. Babies hatch around 8 months and grow quickly—when they hatch, they average 2–3 inches long.

6. Healthcare

The Sulcata Tortoise should have a veterinary exam once a year. They are prone to respiratory infections caused by bacterial and viral infections. They are also susceptible to metabolic bone disease and shell pyramiding that can result from an imbalanced diet.

The Life Stages of a Sulcata Tortoise

Their growth rate depends on diet, environmental conditions, habitat, and nutrients. Their growth is slow—they do not reach adult size until 15–20 years of age. Healthy tortoises will reach 7 inches within a year and gain 5–10 pounds per year. Here’s a rundown of size according to age:

3 years: 10–15 inches
5 years: 10–20 inches
10 years: 20–24 inches
15 years+: 26 inches+
Sulcata tortoise near a water basin
Image Credit: Giftzy S, Shutterstock

How to Tell Your Sulcata Tortoise’s Age

There is much debate on how to determine a Sulcata Tortoise’s age. Some experts believe that you can count the rings on the shell, measure the length of the shell, or inspect the color of the shell. However, most experts agree that the only real way to know for sure is by knowing the hatch date; if you do not have this information, you can only make an educated guess.


These amazing tortoises have lively personalities and are intelligent and curious. They can form bonds with their owners and can even recognize them. Caring for these tortoises means having a large space for grazing and feeding them an appropriate diet of grass, hay, and flowers. They must be able to graze and have access to water 24/7. A typical day consists of grazing and burrowing, so keep in mind your yard will suffer the consequences.

They have an exceptionally long lifespan and are a lifelong commitment. They are calm, docile and make excellent pets as long as you understand the commitment.

Featured Image Credit: thirawatana phaisalratana, Shutterstock

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