Saturday, 28 April 2012

Turtles and Tortoises 7: the (no longer) Egyptian Tortoise

Baby T.kleinemanni
For many years Bristol has had on show one of the world’s smallest tortoises, the Egyptian or Kleineman’s Tortoise Testudo kleinemanni. Despite its’ name, sadly it is no longer found in Egypt itself, and is classed as Critically Endangered in the wild.

Threats to tortoises I have described in previous posts have mainly been from habitat destruction and collection for food. With T.kleinemanni the situation is different, as practically the entire cause of its current dire situation is collection for the pet trade.

In the past, a trade in wild caught tortoises, usually larger species such as Spur-thighed T.hermanni or Greek T.graeca was widespread in Europe. These were usually collected from Spain, Italy, or Greece, and sold very cheaply in pet shops. Of course, in a British climate attempting to keep such creatures in the back garden without any of the equipment or lighting available today, was a recipe for disaster, and most died within a year or two. As European populations declined, the trade moved to new areas, and among the species targeted was T.kleinemanni. As a desert edge specialist, these had an even poorer life expectancy in Europe then Mediterranean species, but the cost of collection was low, there were few laws governing the trade, especially in the source countries, and as a result the species became extinct in Egypt. Today the sole remaining effective population, with perhaps 5,000 adults, is to be found in Libya, and that is also very vulnerable. They are traded inside Libya itself, even though they are protected under CITES, and the recent upheavals can have done nothing for law enforcement of what environmental protection laws Libya currently has.

Confiscated T.kleinemanni, Genoa, 2005
In the past T.kleinemanni probably had a range throughout the edge of the Sahara, living near wadis and oases,with the larger T.graeca and T.hermanni in the more vegetated regions. Aside from its size its lifestyle is probably the same as for its larger relatives, with the exception that the seasonal threat comes from summer heat rather than cold winters, and as a result it will aestivate in the hot months. The true T.kleinemanni is found only west of the Nile delta, populations to the east have been split as T.werneri, with a range through the Arabian Peninsula into the Negev.

kleinemanni on left, werneri on right
Despite its small size (even a large female is only the size of a coffee mug) T.kleinemanni probably has much the same life expectancy as its larger relatives. In the wild lack of availability of food means they probably do not grow large enough to breed until they are over 10, perhaps even 20, years old, although in captivity they can be mature by five or so. Mating occurs in the spring, and a small clutch of 1-5 eggs is laid in a nest dug in the ground. When the young hatch they are about 2cm long, and soon start feeding on grasses and herbs in the dry scrub which is their natural habitat.
T.kleinemanni habitat
One interesting feature of T.kleinemanni is their known range. As far as is known they do not occur west of Libya or far from the coast, but in wetter periods of earth’s history North Africa was much greener and suitable habitat would have extended over a much wider area. It is possible that relict populations may exist further south and west than are now known, but the areas are little studied and no one knows for sure.

The animals we currently have on show are part of a group confiscated from animal smugglers. Descendants of wild caught animals are in the pet trade, but unfortunately at that time it was not realised that the western and eastern populations were different species, and it is probable that the two forms were hybridised. Our animals are not yet old enough to breed, but we have hopes they will do so in the future.

For more information on this lovely species, see the tortoisetrust website at

(images from Bristol Zoo, wikipedia,

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