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Threats to the long-term survival of the Egyptian Tortoise

Land Reclamation
Perhaps the most serious threat to T. kleinmanni is the complete (and possibly irreversible) destruction of its natural habitats caused by land reclamation for agriculture. Traditionally, the native inhabitants of the North Coast cultivated small areas of rain fed winter cereals, olives and dates interspersed by large areas of natural habitat. Today, with human population growth and the introduction of modern machinery, almost all cultivable land receiving sufficient rain to grow a crop, is ploughed (usually) annually to cultivate winter cereals. The areas most intensively cultivated are those which held prime T. kleinmanni's habitats in the past (as indicated by remaining pockets of natural habitat).

The completion (some time in the near future) of a canal, planned to reach all the way to El Daba, carrying Nile water from the Delta; and the introduction of irrigation based agriculture, will completely alter the landscape and ecology of the eastern section of the North Coast of the Western Desert. The project, which also involves settling Nile Valley Egyptians on the newly reclaimed land, will lead to a great increase in the human population in the region.

The situation in northern North Sinai is similar. Increasing areas of the species' natural habitats are being cultivated for rain fed wheat and melons. The Salam Canal project will bring water from the Nile to northwest Sinai and aims to reclaim over 400,000 feddans for agriculture. The eastern corner of the Sinai, the El Arish - Rafah triangle is likewise being reclaimed and extensively planted with orchards completely transforming the area into arable use.

Traditional pastoralism and over grazing
Unlike the impact of agriculture, which is very easy to observe, even from long distances (the complete removal of natural vegetation), the impact of grazing is more subtle. Grazing is probably as devastating to the tortoises. Sheep and goats directly compete with tortoises over the same food resource, annuals (the main food items for T. kleinmanni). In early spring when T. kleinmanni's activity should reach its peak, coinciding with maximum growth of annuals; grazing is most intense. Close examination of areas that appear in good condition from a distance, reveal that only dominant woody perennials, which are not browsed heavily by sheep and goats (such as Thymelaea hirsuta and Artemisia monosperma), are left, while annuals, are heavily browsed. Indeed in most seemingly suitable habitats there are usually very few or no annuals left. Livestock, their tracks, droppings and signs of severe over grazing are seen every where.

There is also intensive collection by the Bedouins of natural vegetation for fuel, building materials, herbs, traditional remedies and fodder.

Commercial collection and trade in tortoises
Commercial wildlife collectors and traders usually have a network of local inhabitants (middle men), who collect various species of reptiles and mammals for them. These middle men buy any wildlife (including tortoises, if any) brought to them by other locals. Herders are the most likely to encounter tortoises in the wild and collect them. Indeed herders are responsible for collecting the great majority of tortoises. Herders are very familiar with T. kleinmanni, its habits, habitat and most importantly tracks. Moreover, herding activity is highest during the period of maximum tortoise activity in the spring, which optimizes the opportunity for herders to find the animals.

However, the biggest setback this species has suffered recently took place after political relations between Egypt and Libya improved and the borders between the two countries were opened in 1989. Egyptians working as herders in Libya collect large numbers of tortoises (mostly T. kleinmanni but also some T. graeca) and export them across the border for the pet trade in Egypt. Egyptian Tortoises traded in Egypt are usually associated with a smaller influx of T. graeca and are brought into Egypt (and often sold) along with Libyan goods. Thousands of both species were imported to Egypt through the past decade.

In Baha El Din's (1994) survey, no evidence was found of commercial collection of tortoises in the North Coast area at the present time because the local population has become depleted. One animal found with a herder at Salum was brought from Libya. Both professional collectors (from Abu Rawash) and locals, stated in agreement that the species is no longer collected from the North Coast region. They both acknowledge, however, that large numbers were collected in the past, but that extremely small numbers have been found during the past 10 years. But even today, any of the very few remaining animals encountered will still be collected and sold to commercial collectors, or at local markets to Egyptian tourists from the Nile Valley (natives are not interested in buying tortoises).

In North Sinai, Egyptian Tortoises were likewise collected for the pet trade. Local bedouins also kept tortoises as pets as they are thought to bring good luck. As with the North Coast, the North Sinai tortoise populations were decimated by over collection from the wild. Baha El Din (1994) found no evidence of the species, but indicated some reports of tortoises in some remote areas of North Sinai. In 1997 a young male Egyptian Tortoise was confiscated from an illegal reptile shipment originating from North Sinai, providing concrete proof that some Egyptian Tortoises continued to survive in the wild in Egypt, but live under the constant threat of collection.

Many of the Egyptian Tortoises collected from the wild die during transport and in trade, and most die soon after entering captivity. Animal dealers keep animals in appalling conditions, in most instances not providing them with sufficient food or water. Dehydration and disease is usually rampant. After being purchased, the animals often fare no better. Most of the individuals who purchase tortoises do not know how to keep and maintain them, often thinking that they are non-living objects ! Thus, many perish in agonizing conditions.

Although T. kleinmanni is listed under Appendix I of the CITES Convention, illegal export of the species has continued. Since the beginning of 1999 an influx of animals originating from Libya was detected in several pet shops in Cairo. In the Czech Republic several animals with CITES permits from Egypt were reported in February 1999. These permits were either foraged, or given by the Giza Zoo, which is the body responsible for issuing CITES permits in Egypt.

Urban encroachment and tourist development
Urban expansion and tourism development has consumed large tracks of habitat along the Egyptian Mediterranean coast. Urban and tourism development is taking place in the North Coast at a very rapid pace, to the extent that most of the structures currently found along the coasts of the region have been erected in the past 5-10 years, and the rate at which new developments are being established is increasing further. Wall to wall tourism developments have been built between Alexandria and El Alamein. It seems that the whole North Coast is destined to be developed in this fashion, whether by plan or not. The coastal region to the west and east of Matruh has also been transformed in recent years by construction of tourist resorts.

The North Sinai Mediterranean coast is likewise under heavy pressure from tourism development. Tourism resorts are spreading east and west from El Arish, up to the boarders with the Zaranik Protected Area. There is also intensive development for tourism in northwest Sinai on the coast west of Lake Bardawil.

These developments not only lead to the complete destruction of the sites they are built on, but also lead to degradation of vast areas surrounding them which are impacted by the various activities associated with the construction and operation of these developments (such as building material extraction, waste disposal and disturbance).