The Egyptian Tortoise: its natural history, its captive care, its beauty, its lore. . .
kleinmanni home | golden beauties | desert life | climate's role | captive needs | unique diet | Captive Habitat 1: basics | Captive Habitat 2: habitat development | Breeding | hatchling care | when something goes wrong | natural and un-natural history | All in the family | captive behaviors | tortoise links | references

This website is devoted to the Egyptian tortoise, Testudo kleinmanni (Lortet, 1883), the smallest member of the Mediterranean family of tortoises. It is as much an enigma and a mystery as the ancient land of Egypt where its natural history has unfolded. This little tortoise has carved its niche from ages before the ages of the Pharaohs and sphinxes, as part of the lasting legacy of 280 million years of chelonian history on the earth.

These beautiful animals are now extremely endangered in Egypt, as indeed, throughout its range. In Egypt proper, it may be that kleinmanni populations are in fact functionally extinct due to sparsity and fragmentation. Here you will find information about their natural history, their interaction with human history, and most importantly their care, feeding, habitat and husbandry needs in captivity. You'll find information from the scientific literature on the species. You'll also find my own abundant opinion, insight, and prejudices about this wonderful animal.

If you wander far enough, you will begin to find bits of whimsey from my own sense of humor, as well as some of the amusement provided by the tortoises themselves. Welcome to the world of the second tiniest tortoise on the face of the earth.

one month old hatchling kleinmanni
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by instinct, this one knows classic kleinmanni drinking posture, tusche in the air kneeling to sip

A SPECIES DISAPPEARS FROM THE DESERT

The little Egyptian tortoise, Testudo kleinmanni, once ranged along the Mediterranean Sea Coast from Lybia, along ancient Cyrenaica, across Egypt into Southern Palestine. Hatchlings in captivity (like the one to the right and those below) are very likely its best hope for survival, as native populations along the Mediterranean coast have been devastated by human development, the sad practice of overgrazing in the areas where they live, and continued collection for the pet trade both by local folks as an adjunct to the shepherding economy and by the pet dealers of Cairo and Alexandria. This in spite of the fact that this little tortoise has been protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (C.I.T.E.S.) for years now.

The removal of these animals from the wild for the pet trade industry of the West took its most devastating toll in 1980's and early 1990's. Those animals exported during that time frame that lived to breed became the nucleus of captive bred groups that may well be the genome's best hope for survival. This fragile species is difficult to keep in captivity. It has a very narrow environmental tolerance, coming from the coastal desert strip of Egypt along the Mediterranean coast, and ranging no more than 120 km inland along the waterless wadis. Further, the species presents unique wild dietary needs of which we still know very little and which are frankly difficult to imitate or replicate in captivity.

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captive bred hatchlings like these may be this species' only hope

Tortoises for sale on an Alexandria street corner
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photo by Robert Ragozinno, 1996

THE PERILS OF BEING AN ATTRACTIVE TORTOISE

The woman in the photograph at right is selling tortoises in an Alexandrian street corner. In her hands she holds a specimen of the Libyan form of T. graeca. In her tray is a second T. graeca, as well as several adult specimens of Testudo kleinmanni. And this is just one local woman. Collected by herdsmen and local villagers for decades and sold into the pet trade for a pittance to supplement meager incomes, kleinmanni populations were likely already at risk before the mass collections of the late 20th-century.

The pet trade as sponsored by the merchants of Alexandria and Cairo collect and process an obscene number of animals, most of which die either in the pet markets and bazaars or shortly thereafter, dehydrated, stressed and overburdened with parasites, in poor condition indeed. Sadly, outside the pet trade this animal also continues to be collected and used in the manufacture of local fertility concoctions.

THE NATIVE RANGE OF TESTUDO KLEINMANNI IN LIBYA AND EGYPT

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MAXIMUM KNOWN RANGE OF TESTUDO KLEINMANNI IN MODERN HISTORY

Testudo kleinmanni have existed for as long as we know in the fragile, narrow, coastal strip of North African coast extending from Cyrenaica in Libya (Schleich, 1984) east to beyond the Nile delta in Egypt. Throughout the length of their range, they have rarely been seen more than 120 km inland (el Din, 1994). Those animals once identified as T. kleinmanni east of the Nile Delta and across Sinai and into the Negev have recently been shown to be the Negev Tortoise, a separate, related species identified scientifically as Testudo werneri (Perala, 2001). The implications of this separation for identifying and preserving of the two separate endangered species are enormous.

ABOUT THE PHOTOS ON THIS WEBSITE

Click on almost any of the photos in this site to get an enlarged view of the photo in a separate browser window.

ABOUT THE RED SPOTS ON THE TORTOISES: These are marker dots placed by me on the shells of the tortoises using tiny amounts of fingernail polish. They identify the genetic lineage of the tortoise (sire and dam) as well as providing a way for strangers to sort out which one is which.

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"You can't trample infidelswhen you're a tortoise.I mean, all you could do isgive them a meaningful look."

-- Terry Pratchett, "Small Gods"

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All information and photos used in these pages is protected by copyright. Photos not taken by myself are credited; texts are fully noted and references included on the final page.  Use other than personal of the information or photos presented here requires my express written consent and / or that of the original author or photographer of the materials, and can be initiated by contacting me through this link. Any such use without such express written consents will be subject to legal action.

The Egyptian Tortoise: its natural history, its captive care, its beauty, its lore. . .
Fred L. Erwin, Jr., 2004 - 2005 C.E.