Central Asian Tortoise
Agrionemys horsfieldii formerly Testudo horsfieldii
Russian tortoises are small, drab colored but personable animals. They are uniformly tan or light brown often with some yellow or olive mottling. Adults are seldom larger than 6-8 inches (15-20 centimeters). They can live over 50 years.
Russian tortoises have a tremendously large range, from China to the countries of Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan. They are also found in eastern Iran, Afghanistan, northwestern India and northern Pakistan. Within this range it is found on remote hillsides, rocky outcroppings and steppes up to 6,500 feet (nearly 2000 meters) in elevation. The factors limiting their range appear to be moisture (they do not like to be wet) and extreme cold. They are diurnal and spend much of the day foraging for vegetation.
Due to their heartiness and tolerance for a wide range of temperatures, Russian tortoises can be kept in outside pens in much of the United States. The primary limiting factor for these tortoises both in outdoor and indoor enclosures is moisture. These animals like to be dry! In addition to being dry, they do like to burrow, so any outside enclosure should have walls that are buried at least 12-inches (30 centimeters) below the surface, with 18-inches (46 centimeters) being recommended. It is equally important to secure outdoor pens from predators. In spite of their shells, tortoises can fall prey to any number of predators, including, but not limited to weasels, raccoons, dogs, coyotes, alligators, and raptors. Tops and/or electric fencing can be used. The enclosure should provide a shallow (not more than an inch or two deep, or shallow enough that the tortoise can raise its head out of the water if it is in the bowl) water bowl. Hiding places such as logs, scrap lumber, secured rocks (make sure they cannot move and crush your tortoise) should also be provided. They like to bask and should be given adequate access to sunlight or an artificial basking area. An outdoor flood or spot light can be used to raise ambient temperatures. Shelter from rain and perpetual dampness is of paramount importance. In most cases, ambient nighttime temperatures will not be a problem unless it gets below freezing for several days at a time.
Indoors, like out, the most important factor for Russian tortoises is aridity. A Russian’s enclosure should not be moist or humid in any way. Because they like to burrow, their enclosure should provide at least 8 inches (20 centimeters) of dry substrate (preferably dirt). Russian tortoises, being one of the smallest tortoises, do not require the large enclosures that many other tortoises need, but should still be given space to roam. An enclosure three feet by 18-24 inches (92 centimeters by 45 to 60 centimeters) would be a good starting point for one to two tortoises. Aquariums are not recommended as the glass can be confusing to the tortoises. UVA/UVB and basking lights should be provided. This can be accomplished easily with one of the many commercially available basking lights with UV, or by using a spot/flood light in conjunction with a fluorescent UV bulb. The basking area should be between 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit with a temperature gradient that allows a drop of 10-15 degrees on the opposing side. Nighttime temperatures are not important in all but the coldest climes (temperatures should not remain below freezing for extended periods of time).
Russian tortoises are mostly herbivorous, but will also eat lightly moistened dry foods (such as dog, cat or monkey chows). Under no circumstances should this or any other high-protein food be offered more than once a week to 10 days. Too much protein can lead to rapid growth and bone disease. They can also be feed dark leafy greens (such as kale, spinach, endive, romaine lettuce, escarole, and mustard and collared greens). Avoid iceburg lettuce except as a supplement for hydration as it has little nutritional value. Russian tortoises also enjoy most grasses, weeds and flowers, but care should be taken to make sure they are collected in pesticide/herbicide-free areas. They are attracted to the color red and will eat most red fruits, including, but not limited to: apples, grapes, watermelon and tomatoes. Their food should be supplemented with an appropriate vitamin/mineral dust.
Almost all Russian tortoises are imported, which means they are often exposed to parasites and/or upper respiratory illnesses due to the way in which they are exported. Most imported animals (and most captive raised animals for that matter) harbor some parasites that remain in a type of homeostasis, but the added stress of traveling can throw this out of balance. The most important factor (even before any sort of treatment) in combating this problem is to remove the source(s) of the stress. Generally this is done by providing optimal environmental conditions (in this case; no crowding, adequate heat, lack of moisture) and allowing the animal to acclimate to its new surroundings. In other words, do not handle your animal excessively during this critical period! After, and only after, this has been attempted should any sort of treatment ensue if still necessary. Consult a qualified reptile veterinarian for treatment suggestions.
Russian tortoises, like many tortoises need to be able to hibernate for several months out of the year. If you are keeping your tortoise in a large outside enclosure, it will likely burrow in and take care of this necessity itself. With indoor enclosures, it is necessary to make provisions for this natural behavior. See the link labeled “Hibernation Tips” for more information.
Lastly, as with most tortoises, Russians are a long-lived species and this should be taken into account before making a commitment.