The Egyptian tortoise is a small, desert-living tortoise of the Middle East, recognised for its high-domed, golden-coloured shell and diminutive size (4) (5) (6). The colour of the carapace can in fact range from ivory and pale, dull yellow through an almost golden, bright straw-colour to dark brown (6) (7). The pale, reflective colours that are usual allow the tortoise to forage for longer during the intense heat of the day, whilst also providing good camouflage in the species’ sandy, rocky habitat (5). Dark edging normally exists to the front and sides of each scute, but fades with age (6) (7), and the head and limbs are a very pale yellow-ivory to yellowish-brown colour (2) (7). The plastron is pale yellow with a characteristic dark triangular notch on the two abdominal scutes, although these are occasionally absent. Males are smaller and more elongated than females, and have longer tails (2).
- Also known as
- Kleinmann’s tortoise, Leith’s tortoise.
- Testudo leithii.
- Tortue De Kleinmann, Tortue d'Egypte.
- Tortuga De Plastrón Articulado.
- Carapace length: 14.4 cm (2)
Egyptian tortoise biology
The Egyptian tortoise is one of the most poorly understood Mediterranean tortoises (7). Courtship and mating in the wild have only been observed in March, although reproduction in captivity takes place in April and August to November (2). One of the most remarkable features of this species’ breeding behaviour is the loud, distinctive vocalisation emitted by the male during mating, which has been described as similar to the sound of a mourning dove’s call, and is quite unlike that of any other Mediterranean tortoise (2) (7). The male appears to ram the female during courtship, which is sometimes followed by a frantic chasing episode (2). Nests are dug in the sandy earth, into which a clutch of one to five eggs are laid (2) (7). Diet in the wild is unknown, but captive individuals will eat grasses, fruits and vegetables (2).
Egyptian tortoise range
Formerly thought to occur across Libya, Egypt and Israel, the populations east of the Nile delta in Egypt and in Israel have recently been found to be a separate species, Testudo werneri. Furthermore, the species is effectively extinct in the remaining areas of Egypt. Two wild individuals were found in 2001 in a protected coastal area in the Western desert, the first record of the species in Egypt in over 20 years, but such small numbers do not constitute a viable population. The tortoise is still found in two distinct regions of Libya - Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (1).
Egyptian tortoise habitat
The Egyptian tortoise inhabits deserts and semi-desert habitats, usually with compact sand and gravel plains, scattered rocks and shallow, sandy wadis, but also in coastal salt-marsh habitats, dry woodlands and brushy areas of scrub thorn (1) (2).
Egyptian tortoise status
Classified as Critically Endangered (CR A2abcd+3d) on the IUCN Red List 2004 (1) and listed on Appendix I of CITES (3).
Egyptian tortoise threats
The main threats endangering the Egyptian tortoise are intensive commercial collection and habitat destruction, leading to the disappearance of the species from much of its former range (8). Agricultural expansion, cultivation, overgrazing and urban encroachment have put enormous pressure on the Egyptian tortoise’s fragile and dwindling habitat, dramatically reducing available vegetation for food and cover (1) (8). Additionally, the species has suffered heavily in Egypt from collection for the national and international pet trade, which moved its attention to Libyan stock after Egyptian subpopulations were harvested to extinction. Trade in this species also exists in Libya itself, which is a major concern for the future of the remaining world population (1).
Egyptian tortoise conservation
The Egyptian tortoise is protected by law in Egypt but not in Libya. Additionally, the tortoise is listed under Appendix I of CITES, prohibiting international trade in the species. However, these protective laws are evidently often flouted. Protected areas exist in Egypt, including the one in which the two individuals were found in 2001, but there is little benefit of this protection, or indeed motivation to establish new protected areas for the species, since it is effectively extinct in Egypt. This tortoise may also occur in Kouf National Park in northeast Libya, where one specimen was found 20 years ago, but no other reserves exist in the species’ known range. The establishment of more protected areas in Libya would be of enormous benefit to the Egyptian tortoise and greatly enhance its chances of survival. Although tracts of suitable habitat still remain in Libya, there is an all too realistic possibility that the Egyptian tortoise could face extinction in less than 20 years if habitat degradation and trade cannot be stopped (1).
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For more information on the Egyptian tortoise see:
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- In reptiles, the top shell of a turtle or tortoise.
- In reptiles, the lower shell of a turtle or tortoise.
- An enlarged, bony plate or scale on the carapace (the top shell of a turtle or tortoise).
- A dry riverbed that only contains water during times of heavy rain.
IUCN Red List (January, 2006)
Turtles of the World (CD-ROM), by Ernst, C.H., Altenburg, R.G.M. & Barbour, R.W. (March, 2006)
CITES (January, 2006)
American University: Trade and Environment Database (March, 2006)
World Chelonian Trust (March, 2006)
The Egyptian Tortoise: its natural history, its captive care, its beauty, its lore… (March, 2006)
Tortoise Trust: Captive breeding of the Egyptian tortoise Testudo kleinmanni, by Highfield, A.C. and Martin, J. (March, 2006)
Tortoise Trust: Status of the Egyptian Tortoise in Egypt, by Sherif and Mindy Baha El Din, TortoiseCare (1994) (March, 2006)