High Hopes For Egypt's Little Tortoise

CAIRO, Egypt, September 1, 2000 (ENS) - Small, slow and increasingly rare, the Egyptian Tortoise faces an uphill battle for survival thanks to threats from unlikely sources.

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The Egyptian Tortoise is one of the world's smallest tortoises. (Photos courtesy Tortoise Trust)
Recently, the national airline Egypt Air invited tourists to buy the threatened species, otherwise known as Testudo Kleinmanni, in an inflight magazine feature about popular pet markets. Egyptian nationals as far away as Sweden and the United Kingdom have been arrested or jailed for selling Egyptian tortoises.

Despite an Egyptian ban on their trade, small numbers of animals still turn up for sale in pet shops. In March 1998, Egyptian conservation officials made a surprise visit to one of the famous Abu Rawash reptile traders and discovered a sack with some 100 Egyptian Tortoises being delivered by a local bedouin from Sidi Barrani, a small town on Mediterranean coast 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of the Libyan boarder.

The bedouin had just obtained the animals from Libya. Before confiscation procedures could be taken, or proper space for the animals could be found, the bedouin disappeared along with the animals.

On top of such trade, agricultural expansion, overgrazing, development and tourism have all but wiped out the Egyptian Tortoise's natural habitat in the coastal deserts of Egypt, Eastern Libya and Israel's western Negev.

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Despite a ban on trade, dealers at Cairo's Tunsi pet market continue to find willing buyers for the animal.
Working to prevent extinction of the species in the wild is TortoiseCare, a group of international and local organizations and individuals led by Sherif Baha el-Din, scientific adviser at the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency, and his wife Mindy.

In 1994 Baha el-Din wrote a report on the status of the Egyptian Tortoise which concluded that it had been virtually eliminated from its traditional habitat. That led to a commercial ban on trade of the species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

In 1996, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) placed the Egyptian Tortoise on its Red List of threatened animals.

But evidence of the continued trade, mainly fueled by imports from Libya, arrived at Baha el-Din's doorstep in 1997 when he was presented with sacks containing hundreds of Egyptian tortoises, the result of government raids on illegal traders in Cairo's Tunsi pet market.

With the help of the United Kingdom's Tortoise Trust, the Zoological Society of London and a grant from the Netherlands government, TortoiseCare has been raising Testudo Kleinmanni on the rooftop of Baha el-Din's father's house in Cairo, prior to releasing them in the wild.

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The dotted area shows the former range of the Egyptian Tortoise. The solid area illustrates the existing range.
The Egyptian Tortoise is one of the world's smallest tortoises. The largest specimen ever described measured 128 millimeters (five inches), but most are smaller. Females are larger than males and most males are less than 90 millimeters long.

Despite their tiny size, concerns about overcrowding and spread of disease led to 35 of the rooftop tortoises being transferred to the American College in Cairo (CAC). This prompted the initiation of the CAC Egyptian Tortoise education and captive breeding project.

Now TortoiseCare has established three captive breeding and reintroduction programs. The first is at the Zaranik Protected Area in North Sinai, one of Egypt's top nature reserves and once part of the tortoise's natural range.

More than 60 of the rescued tortoises, some of them with radio tags, have been released at Zaranik, and it is hoped more will follow.

An enclosure was built at a farm in the desert near Cairo owned by Wadi Foods, a leading Egyptian company producing olive products. The TortoiseCare team released 40 Egyptian Tortoise and two Greek Tortoises into the enclosure, which needs more vegetation before it can accommodate additional tortoises.

The Sekem Initiative agreed to host a tortoise enclosure at its farm near Ismaliya. Sekem is a pioneer in the field of organic farming in Egypt.

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More than 180 of the 300 eggs laid at TortoiseCare's rooftop facility hatched last year.
Meanwhile, the rooftop community of Egyptian Tortoises continues to thrive. More than 300 eggs were laid at the facility last year and 182 hatched.

TortoiseCare's continues to raise awareness among government bodies, NGOs, businesses and academic institutions about the Egyptian Tortoise's plight. It has contacted Libyan conservation officials who have since confiscated tortoises at the border crossing at Salum, and released them in Kouf National Park, nearby.

The Zoological Society of London and TortoiseCare are planning to develop a proposal for a project to conserve the Egyptian Tortoise in Libya which has the last significant wild populations of the species.