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CARE-SHEET FOR YOUNG INDIAN STAR TORTOISES

The Indian Star Tortoise (Geochelone elegans) has to be one of the most beautiful tortoises in the world. Mine are the larger more colourful race that originate from Sri Lanka and I had the good fortune to breed my adults and hatch my first babies in 2002. This has been an annual event since and I am currently the most successful UK breeder of this wonderful tortoise and one of the top Indian Star breeders in Europe.

Photo 1 : Three of my adult female Indian Stars feeding in their indoor environment

AN IDEAL SIZE FOR LIFE INDOORS Because of its relatively modest adult size (my largest adult female is 3.16kg in weight and 25.8cm in length) the Indian Star is probably the only readily available tropical tortoise suitable for long-term indoor accommodation. Neither of its cousins - the Leopard Tortoise (Geochelone pardalis with a typical adult size in excess of 45cm in length and over 15kg in weight) and African Spurred or Sulcata Tortoise (Geochelone sulcata, typical adult size 83cm in length and 105kg! in weight) will be small enough to keep indoors as adults and will require their own shed/greenhouse complex not to mention several people to actually lift them!! You should bear this in mind when you see baby Leopard and Sulcata tortoises offered for sale in shops and on the internet – both these species are pretty as babies but rapidly attain an unmanageable size and purchasers are seldom made fully aware of their adult requirements when they are sold these ‘cute’ babies.

HATCHING My baby Indian Star tortoises hatch after a minimum of 107 days incubation and emerge from the egg with a large yolk sac attached which is absorbed over several days in the incubator. Once this has been absorbed I swab the remaining ‘scar’ clean with Betadine antiseptic using a cotton bud and transfer them to their terrarium where they soon start feeding. From eight weeks onwards after hatching they are feeding enthusiastically, growing in both size and gaining weight and are ready for a new home. Their hatching weight is typically around 17g and they are the size of a 50p at birth. By about eight weeks old they have grown to around 30g and are the size of a ping-pong ball Some babies when they hatch are bigger than others and I always supply the oldest, biggest and most robust youngsters I have available.

Photo 2 : A clutch of four (look hard!) of my baby Indian Stars hatching after 109 days in the incubator

TERRARIUM HOUSING Baby Stars main environmental requirements are heat, humidity and ventilation in the correct proportions. A tortoise's carapace (shell) has evolved to act as a solar panel and their daytime heat must be supplied from above by the use of a spotlight. Night-time heat can be supplied by a heat-mat but this must be taped to the side wall of their terrarium and not left on the floor – if they sit directly on top of a heat-mat they can burn their underside (plastron) as this is not a natural way for them to keep warm. I keep my hatchlings in an open-topped plastic 'Rydon Mill House' terrarium which has a Perspex top with a large rectangular aperture for access and good ventilation (see my Tortoise Terrarium Starter Kit sheet) . This has a floor area of about 21'' x 15'' with a 3cm deep layer of bark mulch as substrate (I use fine grade pine bark which is also marketed by Euro Rep as ‘Rainforest substrate’) with a shallow water bowl (such as the lid from a jam-jar), which prevents any chance of drowning, Each terrarium is equipped with a 60W household light bulb inserted through the top grill and suspended about four inches above the floor, and a fluorescent 'daylight-spectrum' strip-light (I currently use the Arcadia D3 striplight which gives off 6% UVB) which is essential to promote calcium metabolism. It is vital that the heat bulb is towards one end so that there is a temperature gradient which thus produces a cooling-off area to enable the hatchlings to get away from the heat if necessary - too much heat can be fatal – even for reptiles! The temperature of the substrate surface directly underneath the spotlight varies between 30-33C. My ‘starter housing terrarium’ set-up ensures good ventilation but the design helps keeps heat in, and whilst Indian Stars need a reasonably high level of background humidity it is important that the surface of the substrate which they are in contact with remains dry for most of the day, as a permanently damp habitat will result in breathing problems and encourage mould. Over 24 hours humidity at their chosen resting area (about 6 inches away from the centre of the heat lamp) in my rearing terrarium varies from about 50% minimum to a maximum of 97% (this higher figure is shortly after spraying and quickly drops towards the lower figure, so you should be aiming for the lower figure). The lights are on for 12 hours a day (8am – 8pm). The background daytime temperature at the substrate surface about 6 inches from the centre of the heat lamp is between 24-28C and this drops to about 20-22C at night in my terrarium. More expensive and complicated housing and electrical systems are available (but not absolutely necessary) to regulate daytime temperature more accurately by using a dimmerstat connected to the spotlight with the dimmerstat probe and that of a digital thermometer placed on the substrate surface in the centre of the spotlight beam. In any case your tortoise’s behaviour will tell you if you have got this right – if it sits under the spotlight all the time it isn’t warm enough, if it sits as far away from the spotlight as it possibly can it is too hot. A little thermal tweaking may be necessary from time to time and bear in mind that Indian Stars have certain daily activity periods (see under feeding below) and will spend a good chunk of the day ‘parked up’ snoozing which is quite normal behaviour and not a sign of incorrect temperature control. A healthy appetite and a steady increase in weight is the best indication that housing conditions are correct. A weight gain of 1-2g every 4-6 weeks to start with would be quite acceptable and this growth rate will become faster as they grow in size and can eat more each day. A minimum night-time temperature of 20-22C is essential and can be achieved by fixing a heat-mat to the back-wall of the housing and turning it on at night only. This again can be used with a thermostat, although not essential, to give an accurate air temperature. A more expensive option is to use a ceramic heater (which does not give off visible light and therefore does not affect their sleeping pattern) which must be connected to a thermostat. If temperatures aren’t high enough it may be necessary to use a small fan-heater to keep the temperature of the room they are in a little higher, particularly during the winter months. It is important to spray the heated sleeping area with warm water from a plant sprayer daily (usually late afternoon) to provide residual humidity overnight as this prevents the possibility of dry, sticky eyes. The terrarium setup should be situated away from direct sunshine (i.e. away from windows) as on a sunny day the glass could magnify the suns rays and push the internal temperature of the terrarium dangerously high. The ideal situation would be in a warm room, away from a window and free from draughts (this too is important to avoid any chance of chills). Avoid conservatories too as the temperature on a sudden sunny day can suddenly become lethally hot. These are all points to help you avoid a potential tragedy – prevention is always the best option here.


Although the housing requirements sound a little complicated they really are not – I can supply a basic starter terrarium setup (see my price-list) suitable for baby Stars up to around 18 months of age, and once you see it set up and working it is a lot simpler to comprehend. Once the housing is set up it is quite low maintenance and your tortoise is really quite undemanding on a day-to-day basis.


FEEDING AND ACTIVITY Because of the climate where they come from Indian Stars are naturally active in the early morning and the late afternoon, and will rest inbetween. In the wild this enables them to avoid the hottest part of the day which would literally kill them from dehydration or heat-stroke. It is an idea to feed them during what would be their natural activity period, but not essential – see ‘feeding tip’ below, and I normally feed mine around 5pm. Star tortoises are 100% herbivorous - they must not be fed any meat product or derivative (animal protein) and their diet should be high in fibre and virtually fat-free. Food is supplied where possible fresh-picked from the garden on a daily basis although plants such as dandelion will keep in the fridge in a sealed food bag or sandwich box for up to a week. In the wild their staple diet is based on fresh grass and succulents, and both lawn and various wild grasses can be offered in captivity – particularly fresh shoots as these provides both fibre and plant protein. There are plenty of healthy food plants which can be picked and fed to Star Tortoises when in season (at least 7-8 months of the year) and these include dandelion leaves (and flowers with stalks when available), plantain (Plantago species), clover, convolvulus/bindweed, buttercup, sowthistle, hawkbits, vetches and trefoils, leaves and flowers (such as honeysuckle, petunia, viola, rose, mallow, hibiscus), sedum ('Ice plant') passion fruit flowers etc. Water-cress is a very healthy addition too being high in iron, Having a garden with a variety of potentially edible plants in is an advantage here and it is quite easy to plant extra tortoise food-plants (‘edible gardening’). Comprehensive lists of suitable edible plants for tortoises and how to identify them can be found using the following links http://www.tortoisetrust.org/articles/plantfoods.html  and http://www.tlady.clara.net/TortGuide/diet.htm Plants should be picked well away from roads where exhaust fumes may have contaminated them and also areas used by dog-walkers because of the risk of worm infestation via faeces. Other potential contaminants of food plants are cat faeces, and herbicides and slug pellets both of which are lethal to tortoises, so even in cultivated gardens you need to be vigilant when picking tortoise food. A small proportion of fruit can be included in the diet of Indian Stars. Fruit contains accessible vitamins which is why I include it in the diet as a natural source of these essential nutritional building blocks. Even so I only give a small portion of fruit once or twice a week when available as the high natural sugar content will upset their digestive system. Grapes, pears, peaches, nectarines and plums will all be eaten. My Stars are not too keen on apples but will nibble the peel, they like orange flesh (not peel), and kiwi fruit will also be eaten and is a good source of vitamin C. Tomato and courgette are offered occasionally, but the seeds from these (and kiwi fruit) are a theoretical choking hazard for baby tortoises, so ideally you should feed the skin and flesh only. Cucumber must not be fed to baby tortoises under any circumstances as I know of two cases of baby tortoises which choked to death on cucumber. You will soon find out what they do and don’t like, but be sure to give them a little of everything to give a varied diet and not make the mistake of just giving them lots of what they like. In mid-winter when fresh picked food is scarce I do revert to greengrocer's produce such as ‘Italian Style Salad Mix’ (which contains lambs lettuce and rocket), Cos or Romaine lettuce (do not feed Iceberg lettuce as this has virtually no nutritional value), cress, cale, courgette, watercress, carrot peelings and occasional fruit as their staple diet, but grass at least (of the wild plants) is always available to balance this out. All shop-bought greens should be thoroughly rinsed under the cold tap to remove pesticide residues. All food – whether grass, wild-picked plants or supermarket produce - is sprinkled lightly with a calcium/vitamin supplement (Reptavite) twice a week and on the other five days of the week I dust with pure calcium carbonate powder using a small kitchen sieve to sprinkle it over the food to produce a thin coating and maximise its nutritional value. Calcium carbonate powder is available from on-line suppliers such as Livefood UK and is also advertised for sale on e-bay as ‘limestone flour’. It also a good idea to have a small lump of pure chalk or a piece of cuttle-bone available at all times. This enables them to ingest extra calcium when they feel the need and also helps to keep their beak in good condition when they nibble at it. I do not use or recommend commercial dry tortoise foods – feeding any tortoise on soft mush which it does not have to bite, tear and rip into swallowable pieces with its claws and beak does not encourage the development of essential strong neck and leg muscles– indeed feeding soft food will cause the development of an overhanging beak.

Fresh water is available at all times in a shallow bowl such as a jam-jar lid and I spray the hatchlings once or twice a day with tepid water from a plant sprayer which encourages them to become active and to feed and also washes vitamin powder off them and helps to keep their shell (carapace) clean and reduces the risk of powder entering their nostrils or eyes. This also provides some residual humidity in the substrate but it is important to allow the substrate to dry out before the next spraying – they must not be kept in permanently damp surroundings. Given proper care my captive-bred Indian Star youngsters grow quickly. Hatching weight is around 17g and this will approximately double within 2-3 months of hatching. To help you visualise this it corresponds to growing from the size of a 50p piece at birth to the size of a ping-pong ball after only a few months. At about four-five months old their ‘baby’ carapace markings start to develop into the adult ‘star’ pattern which is fully developed at around 18 months old.

Given the correct environmental and nutritional conditions (and these can be readily provided as I have already outlined) my babies thrive in captivity and my adults breed regularly every year. I have rarely had any problems with my babies and they have always done really well for their new owners. They really are not as hard to look after as you might think, or be led to believe by some of the ‘experts’ on the internet!

WHAT THE BOOKS SAY The Tortoise Trusts’ ‘’Practical Encyclopedia of Keeping and Breeding Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles’’ is an excellent publication but was published in 1996 (and recently reprinted without being updated) states that the Indian Star Tortoise ‘’are not a particularly easy tortoise to induce to breed (or even mate) in captivity’’. Clearly this is no longer the case as I have proved annually since 2002 and this book is now over ten years out-of-date. If you want to know any hard facts about Indian Stars my advice is – ask me!

Photo 3 : One of my first hatchlings of 2007 at just one day old – the egg-tooth with which it broke out if its eggshell is still clearly visible.

A DELICATE TORTOISE? There still seems to be a ‘myth’ circulating on many internet sites that the Indian Star is a ‘delicate’ tortoise and is ‘difficult’ to keep. This arose in the 1960’s and 70’s when all Indian Stars in pet-shops were imported directly from the wild, having been shipped in crowded and cool conditions over a period of weeks and as a result very few subsequently survived in captivity due to bacterial and viral infections acquired during the dire conditions they had to endure during shipping, and heavy parasite loads carried by wild animals. My own experience of over eight years of care and captive-breeding of this wonderful tortoise is that my captive-bred baby ‘Stars’ are straightforward to keep, relatively undemanding and I have never had to take any of them to a vet. However the same is not true of the imported Indian Stars which are the vast majority offered for sale in shops and by traders on the internet, and I have had e-mails from people who have bought imported Indian Star Tortoises in recent years which have subsequently become sick, several months after purchase, requiring expensive visits to the vets. This is a common outcome of the importation process (see my comments in the next section).and can be simply avoided - by purchasing only genuine captive-bred Indian Stars. Compared to imported animals, captive-bred Indian Stars really are like ‘chalk and cheese’ and although my captive-bred animals may seem expensive (or conversely Star Tortoises available from shops and traders seem to be bigger and cheaper) they will not require subsequent (expensive) visits to the vets! This is why I am happy to recommend my Indian Stars and have total confidence that they will thrive in your care – even if you have never kept a tortoise before.


  • All my baby Stars are covered by my unique 3-month guarantee so don’t be put off by the conflicting advice you may have found on the internet and elsewhere. Remember much of this incorrect ‘information’ is repeated as ‘fact’ when many of the people posting this information have never kept an Indian Star Tortoise, let alone acquired a genuine captive-bred baby.

BEWARE IMPORTED TORTOISES! The vast majority of tortoises (of many different species) for sale in shops and on the internet today have been imported from abroad, many thousands come from Slovenia – a country which has no native tortoise species, and which imports and exports many tortoise species, including Indian Stars, from outside the E.U. Even in this day and age it is a sad fact that virtually all these species are supplied having been caught directly from the wild, which in the long term decimates wild populations and renders them vulnerable to extinction. The majority of imported tortoises will be dead in less than two years, many have a considerably shorter lifespan. There is a very real likelihood during importation of exposure to and infection by harmful viruses (such as the lethal and highly contagious Chelonian Herpes Virus) or bacteria, as a result of cross-contamination from other tortoise, lizard and even snake or amphibian species (due to the practice of shipping different types of animals in close proximity) and to which the Indian Star Tortoise has no resistance. Their ability to resist infection will also be lowered as a result of inevitable cooling or even chilling due to transport at sub-optimal temperatures during ‘shipping’. Either of these instances can lead to the development of respiratory problems such as RNS (‘runny-nose syndrome’) in imported tortoises which will require veterinary treatment and even has the potential to be fatal. Health problems will often develop several months after you buy an imported tortoise so you will have no comeback on the seller. I also know of people whose ‘shop-bought’ Indian Stars have been infested with intestinal worms (including hookworms which are rarely found in captive-bred tortoises) which again raises concerns regarding their ‘captive-bred’ label, hygiene and living conditions for a tortoise at a ‘dealer’ or ‘shipper’ in the country from which they have been imported. You are therefore advised to think very carefully about buying any species of imported tortoise whatever the attraction of size or price may be – it raises serious animal welfare and health issues and it is likely to prove to be a much more costly option in the long run. It is also important to ask questions as to the origin of the tortoise you are thinking of buying and asking to see documentary evidence to prove that it is genuinely born in captivity and preferably in this country. If documentary evidence is ‘not available’ think very carefully about the risks - and ethics - of buying a tortoise of ‘dubious’ or ‘unsubstantiated’ origin. It is very easy for someone to say an animal is captive-bred and equally easy to write it on a receipt, it is much harder to prove! Unfortunately some shops are happy to sell their imported Stars as ‘captive-bred’ or lead you to believe they are captive-bred, even though they will probably be unable to tell you which country they were bred in or who the breeder was, and the health problems suffered by imported Stars all point to them all being taken directly from the wild. More advice on this subject can be found on my website ( www.startortoiseuk.co.uk ) and on the Tortoise Trust website - visit http://www.tortoisetrust.org/articles/imports.html
The Tortoise Protection Group is campaigning to ban the importation of tortoises for these reasons - check out http://www.tortoise-protection-group.org.uk/site/1.asp


Please note I do not sell my babies to shops so if any of them offer to sell you a baby Star and tell you I am the breeder this is blatantly not true, and I would appreciate it if you would forward their details to me so I can report them to Trading Standards.


AN E-MAIL FROM SOMEONE WHO BOUGHT AN IMPORTED STAR my cheap Indian star ended up being very expensive :o( I took him to the vet for a check up after I had spoken to you regarding his cough etc, the vet took some tests and told me he had pin worm, he explained he has probably had it for a long time so he gave him some medicine and gave me baytril to give him daily, cost me almost £100 on the 1st visit inc the medication etc

3 days into the baytril and forcing him to take it, the little guy had enough no matter what he wasn’t taking this medicine and no matter what he wouldn’t come out of his house or eat, had to take him back to the vet who charged me another £70 and said I may need to get a tube in his neck and some liquid food stuff until he recovers Andy for TT said the baytril was messing him up so I took him off it, 2 days later he started eating again and has been ok since, over £250 in travelling and vets bills :o( Rob 2.3.2008

AND AN E-MAIL FROM SOMEONE WHO BOUGHT A BABY STAR FROM ME Twinkle' is doing just fine after not drinking for the first few days, she seems to have settled great. She can be quite funny to watch, with her funny ways! We are also really impressed at how easy she is to care for, she just fitted in the family without any problems. Our main worry was how our two year old would be with her but he great and loves having her, especially when we get her out to walk around the room! So thank you. Caroline x      7.9.2008

CAPTIVE-BRED IS BEST It is therefore vital that you know where your Indian Star Tortoise comes from before you consider buying it for the reasons outlined above. There is no such thing as a ‘cheap’ tortoise. Buying my home-bred babies therefore has huge advantages in terms of health and their long-term prospects as they are guaranteed healthy, have never travelled and are housed completely separately from other tortoise species. In the devastating tsunami of Boxing-Day 2004 areas of Sri Lanka were flooded and Indian Star tortoises would have been drowned and incubating eggs destroyed as they would have been waterlogged underground for some days, and the floodwater penetrated far inland. This event has made this species even rarer in the wild than before, and perhaps more desirable as a result, making it more tempting for people to smuggle them out of their wild habitat for a quick profit. It is all the more vital to buy only genuine captive-bred animals for the sake of conserving this species and enabling populations to recover in the wild.

BUYING FROM THE BREEDER There are huge advantages to buying a tortoise direct from a breeder such as myself as your Star Tortoise will be guaranteed fit and healthy, will never have been subjected to the stress and trauma of shipping, and will not have come into contact with other species of tortoises (or exposed to cross-infection from other reptiles) as is highly likely in a shop environment.

PEACE OF MIND My Indian Stars are all covered by my unique three month guarantee from the date you buy them. They are genuine captive-bred by myself here in the UK, are 100% healthy, feeding enthusiastically and growing in a normal manner. You will also know their exact age and are welcome to see the parents of my babies and see the optimal housing setup that I use for my tortoises, and I have plenty of empty egg-shells! I would expect any one of my babies to thrive in your care but if – after buying from me - you have any concerns regarding its behaviour or ongoing requirements do please contact me for further advice by phone or e-mail. I am always happy to help even if it’s in several years time! Remember it’s my baby too! If you have previously had a bad experience with an imported tortoise but would still like to own a tortoise you should have no worries about trying again with one of my babies and find out just how well they do in your care, and how rewarding tortoise ownership should be for everyone.

ONE STAR OR TWO? Whilst tortoises in the wild are generally solitary I have received feedback from a number of customers which proves that two tortoises generally compete for food (not wanting to miss out on a choice piece of leaf that the other one is eating!) and therefore have slightly heartier appetites and grow a little faster. Whether they need company on a psychological level is still unclear but two Stars are definitely more entertaining to watch ‘being themselves’ on a day to day basis.

Photo 4 : A selection of young Indian Stars bred by myself showing gradual development of adult pattern (front left one month old, front right approximately three months old, top two approximately one year old)

THE LAW RELATING TO INDIAN STAR TORTOISES Unlike the familiar Mediterranean (hibernating) species of tortoises, Indian Star Tortoises do not require an Article 10 Exemption certificate, but I always supply a signed statement stating that I have bred the tortoise, the date the clutch of eggs was laid, clutch size, hatching date, how many eggs hatched from that clutch and the names of the parents for each baby Star. This means that if the law is tightened up in the future you will have proof of the origin of your Indian Star. If you require clarification you should contact DEFRA, Zone 1/17J,Temple Quay House, 2, The Square, Temple Quay, Bristol BS1 6EB (Tel: 0117 3728469)

TRANSPORTATION OF INDIAN STARS To avoid any chance of chills during transportation it is important that baby Stars are transported in a thick cardboard or polystyrene box containing either a hot water bottle or a commercial heat pack and wrapped in a blanket particularly if you have travelled a considerable distance to collect your ‘Star’. This is particularly important during the autumn and winter months.

FURTHER READING Whilst I have written this care-sheet with the intention of giving you all the information you require to provide correct care for one of my young Indian Star Tortoises you may also want to refer to other publications on the subject of tortoise care. Several comprehensive publications dealing with general care of tortoises are available from The Tortoise Trust http://www.tortoisetrust.org covering the care and maintenance of tortoises (including the Indian Star among others) although I must point out that these books were written some 14 years ago and my own information relating to Indian Stars is therefore considerably more up-to-date.

Recommended reading 1. Practical Encyclopaedia of Keeping and Breeding Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles by A.C.Highfield Carapace Press 1996 2. Star Tortoise Basics by Ulf Edqvist Tortoise Trust Newsletter Summer 1999 ISBN 0963-941 3. The Small and Medium-Sized Tortoises by Richard Cary Paull Green Nature Books 1997 4. The Tortoise and Turtle FEEDING MANUAL by A.C.Highfield Carapace Press
London 2000 5. Two Pretty Tortoises : Stars and Radiateds by Tom Mazorlig Reptile Hobbyist Vol.4 No.6 February 1999 TFH 6. The Biology and Status of the Star Tortoise (Geochelone elegans) in Sri Lanka Anslem de Silva, Gampola 2003

For further information do contact me by phone or e-mail I am always happy to help.

Source of information - www.startortoiseuk.co.uk

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