Egypt Battles to Save Desert Tortoise

ByABC News
August 31, 2000, 8:58 AM

C A I R O, Egypt, Aug. 31 -- A tortoise laboriously pulls itself up toa thorny shrub in the arid desert, slowly plucking at theplants 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 Israels 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 havent changed much overthe years, which makes them more susceptible to problems.

The Egyptian tortoise, scientifically known as TestudoKleinmanni, is one of the worlds 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.