Egypt Battles to Save Desert Tortoise

ByABC News

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

The barren terrain dotted with shriveled shrubs offers thinpickings for the Egyptian tortoise, which faces extinction inthe wild. People collect and trade them as pets. Overgrazing andexpansion 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 EgyptianEnvironmental Affairs Agency. He said a thorough survey in Egyptin 1994 had failed to locate any wild tortoises at all.

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

The Egyptian tortoise, scientifically known as TestudoKleinmanni, 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 lightbrown color blends in with the soil. It mates in early springwhen the weather is warm. The female lays up to five eggs, oneto three at a time, which she buries in a shallow hole in thesand. The eggs hatch in summer or early autumn.

Legal Safeguards Not Enough

In 1996, the International Union for the Conservation ofNature placed the Egyptian tortoise on a list of threatenedanimals. The Convention on International Trade in EndangeredSpecies of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) bans international tradein the species except for scientific purposes.

Egyptian law bans their sale, purchase or transport withoutpermits but implementation is difficult. In January 1997, policecracked down on illegal traders selling hundreds of tortoisescollected from Libya in the Tunsi pet market in central Cairo.

Baha el-Din, who works in the Environmental Affairs Agency’snature conservation sector, was approached by authorities withsacks of tortoises, many of which were sick after beingtransported with no water or food for weeks. Asked if he coulduse them as the basis of a conservation program, he accepted.

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

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

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

The Dutch government agreed to give the project a grant. Butonce the tortoises were treated, with the help of the ZoologicalSociety of London, there was still the dilemma of where to finda suitable site to release them into the wild.

Breeding and Rehabilitation Programs

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

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

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

Two more enclosures, each holding up to 50 tortoises, havebeen set up, including one in the privately owned Wadi Food farmon the Cairo-Alexandria desert road and the Sekem Farms, whichare involved in organic farming and community development.

Bedouin Craft Project

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

The Dutch government made a condition of its sponsorshipthat the project should become financially self-supporting. Thegroup came up with the idea of a Bedouin craft project wherewomen would make items such as purses and pillowcases withtortoise designs on them and sell them, with some of theproceeds going to help the tortoises.

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

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

“More important habitats for the species need to bedesignated as protected areas,” Tortoise Care says on its WebSite. “Protected areas are becoming the only natural areas inEgypt where the animals can live without manmade threats anddisturbance.”

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