It is no great secret that, in many places around the world, various species are at risk of damage and even extinction due to human activity. Often, we hear of the plight of large, well known species such as elephants, rhinos, or gorillas. However, the human effect on animal populations is far from limited to these high profile animals. Testudo kleinmanni, a species of tortoise native to the northern regions of Africa, is one species that receives little attention in the popular media, but that is in imminent danger of being wiped out by humans. In this article, we will examine the characteristics and habitat of this now rare tortoise, as well as the effect that human trafficking has had upon it.
Illegal Human Activity
The first aspect of human activity as it relates to the destruction of Kleinmann’s tortoise is the use of the shell and bones in folk medicine. The tortoise has been thought to have healing properties since ancient times, when Egyptians are thought to have used an ointment made from its brain to treat cataracts and other optic disorders. Today, regional hunting occurs for use in local folk medicine, which makes use of the tortoise as an ingredient in fertility medicines.
Far more pressing than this localized hunting is the illegal trade in Kleinmann’s tortoise as pets. Reptile collectors in many countries are willing to pay high prices for specimens of this rare species, resulting in a substantial profit for those willing to risk running afoul of international trafficking laws related to the collection and movement of endangered species. Even in Egypt and Libya, the tortoises are commonly sold as pets. Storage conditions are frequently lethal to many of the tortoises waiting to be sold, as many are kept in small, poorly maintained cages or boxes. In an Egyptian or Libyan market, specimens can be found for as little as the equivalent of 3,50 euros.
In the international market, however, the tortoises become immensely profitable. While black market prices are difficult to ascertain with any degree of certainty, a 2006 case involving the trafficking of the small tortoises found them being sold for roughly 1.480 euros, adjusted for today’s exchange rates. These high prices, their popularity with collectors, and their small size make them a popular target for those involved in the illegal trade of endangered species. Much like the crates in Egyptian markets, tortoises sold on the international black market are often transported in cramped conditions that cause the deaths of many of the individuals en route. Most specimens sold in this manner are smuggled into Europe, where many reptile collectors are available to purchase them, and unregulated travel between EU member nations reduces the risk of being caught at a border crossing. However, the tortoises do sometimes find their way to Asia and even North America in the same manner.
Meanwhile, the collection of wild tortoises continues to drive the wild population closer to extinction. Traffickers do not attempt to breed the tortoises, which require specialized conditions to be successfully bred in captivity. This means that for smuggling to be sustained, more wild specimens must always be collected. It is this type of unsustainable exploitation that has driven the species all but extinct in Egypt, and now threatens to do the same in Libya. Current estimates of the declination rate of the wild population suggest that within 10-15 years, T. kleinmanni will be extinct in the wild.