Last week, while taking some quiet time, I found myself reflecting on the status of Geochelone sulcata in captivity. I was thinking of the myriad number of questions people ask when they approach me after I give a slide show. "What do you think about feeding store trimmings, chow and Pure Pride?" "What kind of supplements do you add to their food?" "Will I be able to sex my tortoise?" "Will my tortoise lay eggs?" "How large do they need to be to lay eggs?" The short and obvious answers are: not much, nothing, sooner or later, good question, and that depends.
For those of us who require more precise answers, I'll take the questions one at a time. But first, lets look to the future status of Geochelone sulcata in captivity. Are they going to be the "trash" tortoise of the 90's? Will they soon be "turning up in our local deserts because people can't give them away"? I don't think so. With the number of breeding adult Geochelone sulcata in this country remaining fairly constant or at best increasing slowly, I don't look for things to change much in the near future as far as overall hatchling production is concerned.
While it is true that a number of captive raised animals are nearing or have reached egg laying size, it remains to be seen whether or not these females can or will produce numbers of viable eggs like their wild caught counterparts. Having experienced problems myself in this area with captive hatched/raised Geochelone sulcata, I feel that "a good wild-caught egg-laying female in the hand is worth five captive hatched/raised females in the bush. Most of these captive raised sub-adults have probably been fed an improper diet for years. However, blaming bad eggs on improper diet, the consequences of which I will discuss momentarily, may be premature.
So, I see no need to circle the wagons. I submit that the price of a hatchling in the future is anybody's guess, but we need look no further than their cousins Geochelone pardalis, the leopard tortoise, for a good guess. They are still in demand.
Now that we've discussed the future, lets come back to the present and deal with the questions. What do you think about feeding store trimmings, mammal chows and Pure Pride? As I said above, not much. There is no doubt in my mind that feeding Geochelone sulcata an improper diet such as store trimmings is not without consequence. It is the main contributor to watery loose stools which if allowed to persist, can be a disaster for the prospective breeder of Geochelone sulcata. A serious effect of watery loose stools is the rampant proliferation of gut protozoa (such as Balantidium, trichomonids, etc.) to undesirable levels. This is the kind of environment these organisms need to sustain themselves in abnormally large numbers. No Geochelone sulcata could be happy while having to deal with all the toxic waste products these organisms produce.
Chows designed for other animals are popular food items that I feel are best omitted from the diet of Geochelone sulcata. Zu-preem, monkey chows, dog food and rodent chows are all examples of food items that contain animal basal protein and fat, designed for carnivorous or omnivorous mammals. Geochelone sulcata, like a horse or a green iguana, utilizes fermentation processes to extract nutrients from the plant materials they eat. These chows may compromise this process. Good moonshine is made from fermented plant material, not "chicken McNuggets"!
Geochelone sulcata hatchlings raised on a diet containing mammal chows can exhibit serious health problems. Several years ago I raised a group of sixteen Geochelone sulcata hatchlings on a diet containing these chows. Several of the animals developed large bladder stones and when necropsied were found to have visceral gout as well. All of the babies exhibited irregular shell growth until their diet was changed. Even if Geochelone sulcata are fed mammal chows in conjunction with a complete, more proper diet there will always be individual tortoises that will fill up on just the chow. Incidentally, most of my adult, wild-caught Geochelone sulcata show no interest in any of the mammal chows.