Afghan tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii)

Also known as: Central Asian tortoise, four-toed tortoise, Horsfield’s tortoise, Russian tortoise, steppe tortoise
French: Tortue Des Steppes, Tortue d'Horsfield
Spanish: Tortuga Terrestre Afgana
GenusTestudo (1)
SizeCarapace length: up to 29 cm (2) (3)

The Afghan tortoise is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1) and is listed on Appendix II of CITES (4).

There are at least three recognised subspecies: Testudo horsfieldii kazachstanica, Testudo horsfieldii rustamovi and Testudo horsfieldii horsfieldii (5).

The Afghan tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii) has a rounded upper shell, known as the carapace, which is almost as broad as it is long. The upper shell varies in colour from uniformly light brown to yellowish-brown with extensive dark brown markings on each scute, while the lower shell, or plastron, is black with yellow seams (2). The head and limbs are yellowish-brown, with the jaws being noticeably darker and the neck, especially in younger specimens, tending to be lighter and more yellowish in colour (2) (6).

The front legs are heavily armoured with prominent overlapping scales (6). Spur-like scales are present on each heel and blunt tubercles are found on each thigh, while the tail ends in a horny claw (2). Unlike all other Testudo tortoises, which have five toes on their forelimbs, this species only has four, resulting in one of its common names, the ‘four-toed tortoise’ (6) (7).

The Afghan tortoise is found from the Caspian Sea southward through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and eastward through Kazakhstan to Xinjiang, China (2).

The Afghan tortoise is native to arid, barren habitats such as rocky deserts and hillsides, as well as sandy steppes and grassy areas close to springs (3) (7) (8). Winters in these environments can be particularly harsh and cold, with temperatures in much of the tortoise’s range well below freezing (7).

The Afghan tortoise has a notably short period of activity, which may last for just three months of the year (7). This species emerges from hibernation in spring, usually around March, and will actively forage and mate until mid-June (7) (9).

The courtship and mating ritual is a little unusual, with the male repeatedly circling the female, then stopping to face her head-on. The neck of the male is extended, while the head is rapidly jerked up and down, accompanied by occasional biting and ramming of the female by the male. A clutch of two to six eggs are laid in May or June, and a further two, or even three, clutches may be laid the same season. Hatchlings usually emerge 80 to 110 days later, in August or September, although sometimes they spend the winter in the nest and do not emerge until the following spring. Although sexual maturity is attained at 10 years of age, this slow-growing tortoise is not considered full-grown until 20 to 30 years (3) (7).

In much of its range, this tortoise aestivates during the scorching summer heat, emerging briefly at the end of summer to feed prior to hibernation. The diet consists of herbaceous and succulent vegetation, including grasses (green and dried), twigs, flowers, fruits and the fresh leaves and stems of native and cultivated plants. This burrow-dwelling tortoise may dig a burrow up to two metres deep, to which it retreats at night and during the midday heat, emerging only at dawn or dusk to forage when temperatures are lower. The depths of its burrow also help to insulate the Afghan tortoise from the ravages of winter (7).

In some parts of its expansive range, the Afghan tortoise has been heavily exploited for food by local people as well as for the pet trade (6) (7). Between 1965 and 1971, 119,319 specimens of this species were imported into the United Kingdom alone (6).

In addition, habitat destruction and degradation due to warfare, farming, livestock grazing and development have all contributed to the decline of this species, and its future looks increasingly uncertain (7).

The Afghan tortoise’s listing on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) helps regulate the numbers of this species that can be exported. However, CITES quotas still permit Uzbekistan to export 40,000 wild-caught specimens a year (4).

Stabilization of the political climate and education of local peoples would contribute to a more promising future for the Afghan tortoise (7).

For more information on the Afghan tortoise see:

Authenticated (15/10/11) by Olivier S.G. Pauwels, Research Associate at the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences, Brussels, Belgium.

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2012)
  2. Ernst, C.H., Altenburg, R.G.M. and Barbour, R.W. (1997) Turtles of the World. ETI Information Systems Ltd., Netherlands. Available at:
  3. Szczerbak, N.N. (2003) Guide to the reptiles of the eastern Palearctic. Krieger Publishing Company, Malabar, Florida.
  4. CITES (March, 2012)
  5. The Asian Turtle Consortium (February, 2007)
  6. Bergmann, P. (2001) The Natural History of the Central Asian Tortoise. The Cold Blooded News, 28(10).
  7. Anderson-Cohen, M. (1994) Russian Tortoise, Testudo horsfieldii. Tortuga Gazette, 30(11): 1-4. Available at:
  8. The San Diego Turtle and Tortoise Society (February, 2007)
  9. The Russian Tortoise (February, 2007)