A Brief Look at Caring for My Forest Hingeback

I have a forest hingeback (kinixys erosa), named Albert, whom I purchased from the pet store where I work. When he and his chum first came in, Amy tried to find some care info on them. Very little was available online at that time, and none of the admittedly-limited books we had covered forest hingebacks. I tended him for over a year (from the time I was hired, 1 May 1998), until I couldnít stand it any longer. I bought him 27 July 1999.

Since then, Iíve combed through books and the internet, searching for information. Iíll summarize his natural history for you, briefly, then give you what I call his "unnatural history" -- what his life is like in my home.

For starters, Iíve seen the forest hingeback called both kinixys erosa and kinixys homeana, Homeís hinged tortoise. To add to my confusion, erosa is also referred to as "Schweiggerís hingeback." The photos Iíve seen which best match Albert are labeled erosa, so thatís the term I use! Obst lists three species, k. belliana, Bellís hinged tortoise; k. erosa, Schweiggerís hingeback; and k. homeana, Homeís hinged tortoise. An internet site from South Africa lists these, giving erosa yet another name, "serrated hingeback," and adds k. natalensis, the Natal hinged tortoise, and k. lobatsiana, the Lobatse hingeback, in addition to splitting k. belliana into four subspecies.


Donít be. Unless youíre seriously interested in nitpicking, all you need to recall about hingeback tortoises is, their carapaces are hinged. Literally. The back end of it can fold down tightly, to protect their rumps. Iíve seen Albert clamp his carapace down noticeably when heís disturbed. They originate in central and East Africa, with k. natalensis and k. lobatsiana being found in southern Africa. Hingebacks, with the exception of the forest-dwelling erosa and some homeana, hang out on savannas, coastal bush, grasslands, and thornveld. They donít grow gigantic, in fact Albert should manage to reach about twelve inches long, tops.

Care in captivity, now, thereís a confusing area. Some of the sources Iíve found suggest what seems to be fairly peculiar care for a forest animal that needs humidity. Rabbit pellets for substrate? How do you mist that? One site I found seemed to have some good ideas, though they struck me odd, too. This couple used timothy hay as their forest hingebackís substrate, and a decent-sized bowl for water. Reading the site, I thought their system must be working, so I tried it. Then I found out their hingeback died less than two months after they put up the site, and they hadnít bothered to note that on their web page!

I decided to chuck most of the "suggestions" and go with common sense. Or, I suppose, my sense. Heís a forest animal, and needs humidity. His current setup is a 40-breeder fish tank with cypress mulch substrate and a Pyrex soaking bowl. Iíve clipped a 60-watt heat light to one end of the tank. And Iím doing something some of these other sources may not have done: I watch him. Carefully. Closely. I want to see how he reacts to different foods, to different environments, and let his actions guide my choices in the future.

For example, some of the sources said he needs UV lighting. Yet Iíve noticed he shuns bright or direct light, sometimes to the extent of pushing his cypress up in one corner and burrowing under it! If I set up a UV light, heíd be miserable, I think. One source said he needs to be kept at temperatures between 80 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. When it gets around 80 in his tank, he climbs into his soaking bowl and wonít come out until the room temperature cools down! He enjoys going outside when the temperature is 72-75 or so. Heíll stroll my whole backyard, unless itís hot, then he heads for the overgrown corner and wonít budge another inch. So I try to keep his temp between 75 and 78.

Feeding him. Another challenge. This is one area in which most of the sources almost agree. He isnít like sulcatas or leopard tortoises. He needs meat. The percentage of protein required varies from resource to resource, but usually falls between 40-60% of his diet. I found out quite early, he wonít eat commercial crickets, mealworms, or tortoise food. Redleaf lettuce, sure, and tomatoes? By the truckload. Strawberries, cucumbers, watermelon, shredded zucchini and other squashes, oranges and limes, yes. So I needed to get some protein into him, somehow. I offered him a scrambled egg. He ate every speck. But I didnít want to overdo the cholesterol, so I tried other things. Dog food? No go. Tortoise food, dry or wet? Not a chance. Plain Knox gelatin with tomatoes or strawberries mushed up in it gets eaten fairly quickly. I had a recipe for a high-protein frozen mush for sugar gliders, and modified it for reptiles. Thatís working. Itís a little complicated, I suppose, but he does like it. He gets it like salad dressing on his veggies, every four days or so.

Albertís apparently crepuscular. Feel free to look up the exact definition of that term. He likes to eat around dawn and dusk, Iíve noticed. And his outdoor eating habits are substantially different from his indoor eating habits! Outside, heíll gorge on wild strawberries. Plant and all. Leaves, stems, flowers, fruit, all grindage to Albert. Heíll munch earthworms. He chows on dandelions, and wild violets. Last August, I saw him chase down and eat two grasshoppers. That was interesting! In fact, his outdoor behavior is interesting on the whole. He hisses at the neighborís sheltie dog. And then thereís the tortoise and the hare.... Okay, itís not a hare, itís a wild rabbit. It lives under my back deck, and several times came out to drink from Albertís soaking bowl during his walkabouts last summer and fall. When Albert noticed this intrusion, he first sucked into his shell. Then a few seconds later, his legs and head shot out, and he hissed at the rabbit. The rabbit thumped, Albert hissed again, the rabbit thumped again, and shot back under the porch. Victorious, Albert continued his investigation of the yard. Heís a very good climber, of course, and four-inch landscaping timbers are nothing but a speed bump to him. He wreaked havoc in my lime mint last fall before I realized what he was doing. Considering heís only six inches long, heís a destructive dynamo when he gets going!

In the eight months Iíve owned him, heís actually grown a bit. Not much, less than half an inch length, but heís almost twice as heavy as the day I finally saved him from his particle-board, poorly-ventilated, overheated and over-lighted pet store prison. I did what I could for him in the store, but the overall conditions were so ill-designed for his care, success seemed impossible. He never moved, in the store. Now, heís got energy, he strolls around my house like he owns the place, and heís very vocal. Hissing, grunting, an odd little noise he makes when he eats kiwi fruit (the treat of the moment). The change is phenomenal.

Iíll admit it, my care is not based on statistics, or years of veterinary school, or anything but common sense and observation. Maybe thatís a solid way to go with hingebacks.

If you'd like to take a gander at him, I've got two sets of pictures: the close-ups, and the walkabout.

Just a quick update: it' now 1 January 2009. Albert continues to thrive. I've tried to tkae more pics, but he either starts really scooting, or sucks into his shell! What a camera-shy guy!

Obst, Fritz Jurgen et al. The Completely Illustrated Atlas of Reptiles and Amphibians for the Terrarium. Neptune City, NJ: T. F. H., 1988, pp 466-7.

Internet sites:

Got a reptile link for me? Cool. Got a husband/wife/spouse equivalent that likes to make fish faces? Uh, I guess I don't mind hearing about 'em.... Just email me at fruitshirt@juno.com.

Last updated 1 January 2009. Copyright 2000-2009.