Egypt Battles to Save Desert Tortoise

C A I R O, Egypt, Aug. 31, 2000 -- A tortoise laboriously pulls itself up to a thorny shrub in the arid desert, slowly plucking at the plant’s stems in an attempt to suck out any moisture.

The barren terrain dotted with shriveled shrubs offers thin pickings for the Egyptian tortoise, which faces extinction in the wild. People collect and trade them as pets. Overgrazing and expansion of agriculture and tourism threaten their existence, and their natural habitat in the coastal deserts of Egypt, eastern Libya and Israel’s western Negev is being destroyed.

No Tortoises in 1994

“Their numbers have declined severely in the last 30 years,” said Sherif Baha el-Din, scientific adviser at the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency. He said a thorough survey in Egypt in 1994 had failed to locate any wild tortoises at all.

“They are very ancient animals and haven’t changed much over the years, which makes them more susceptible to problems.”

The Egyptian tortoise, scientifically known as Testudo Kleinmanni, is one of the world’s smallest and most endangered. The largest measure just five inches long.

It is found in sandy and fairly rocky habitats and its light brown color blends in with the soil. It mates in early spring when the weather is warm. The female lays up to five eggs, one to three at a time, which she buries in a shallow hole in the sand. The eggs hatch in summer or early autumn.

Legal Safeguards Not Enough

In 1996, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature placed the Egyptian tortoise on a list of threatened animals. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) bans international trade in the species except for scientific purposes.

Egyptian law bans their sale, purchase or transport without permits but implementation is difficult. In January 1997, police cracked down on illegal traders selling hundreds of tortoises collected from Libya in the Tunsi pet market in central Cairo.

Baha el-Din, who works in the Environmental Affairs Agency’s nature conservation sector, was approached by authorities with sacks of tortoises, many of which were sick after being transported with no water or food for weeks. Asked if he could use them as the basis of a conservation program, he accepted.

“I was given 300 dead and dying tortoises,” he said. “They were in a very bad condition and we called the Tortoise Trust people to come in and help.” The British-based Tortoise Trust is the world’s largest tortoise and turtle organization.

“We decided to place the animals in a temporary holding facility on my father’s rooftop and then set about taking care of them medically,” Baha el-Din said.

Tortoise Care Egypt, a group of international and local organizations and individuals that came together to help conserve the Egyptian tortoise, was then formed by Baha el-Din and his wife Mindy to help take care of the animals.

The Dutch government agreed to give the project a grant. But once the tortoises were treated, with the help of the Zoological Society of London, there was still the dilemma of where to find a suitable site to release them into the wild.

Breeding and Rehabilitation Programs

Zaranik Protectorate in north Sinai was chosen as the ideal location to set up the enclosure and pilot rehabilitation program as it was part of the tortoise’s natural habitat.

“We placed 10 radio-tracked tortoises on an island in the protectorate as a starting point for our reintroduction program and monitored their behavior,” Baha el-Din said.

A captive breeding program was begun for the rooftop tortoises. Out of 300 eggs laid, 200 hatched, which Mindy says makes it the most successful such project for the species.

Two more enclosures, each holding up to 50 tortoises, have been set up, including one in the privately owned Wadi Food farm on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road and the Sekem Farms, which are involved in organic farming and community development.

Bedouin Craft Project

“This was a great opportunity to show how the private sector can get involved in nature conservation and the environment,” said Mindy, adding that it was one of the most successful species conservation programs in Egypt, largely thanks to government support.

The Dutch government made a condition of its sponsorship that the project should become financially self-supporting. The group came up with the idea of a Bedouin craft project where women would make items such as purses and pillowcases with tortoise designs on them and sell them, with some of the proceeds going to help the tortoises.

This helped generate interest among the Bedouins in helping to preserve the tortoise’s natural habitat and made them aware of the threat to their surroundings. They also made enough money to pay for the daily upkeep of the tortoises.

Sherif and Mindy hope to be able to reintroduce larger numbers of tortoises into the wild and to help to control the illegal sale of the species in Egypt and abroad.

“More important habitats for the species need to be designated as protected areas,” Tortoise Care says on its Web Site. “Protected areas are becoming the only natural areas in Egypt where the animals can live without manmade threats and disturbance.”