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Crimes Against: Illegal Pet Trade

The Egyptian Tortoise

a female egyptian tortoise with it's little baby in front, facing the camera in the dirt and sand

The Egyptian Tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni) is the second smallest species of tortoise in the world.  Averaging a length of just 90mm, it is narrowly beaten to the global record by Homopus signatus (The Speckled Tortoise) but maintains the respectable title of “smallest tortoise species in the northern hemisphere”.  

The distribution of the species is limited to desert areas in northern Egypt, western Negev, Israel and northern Cyrenaica, Libya.  Once more widely spread, the species decline has limited the Egyptian Tortoise to a much smaller area. 


Distribution of Egyptian Tortoise – Dotted Area Former Range – Solid Area Existing Range. Image provided by

These pocket-sized reptiles are a definite favourite among staff and visitors alike at Plantasia Tropical Zoo, where they form part of the international conservation effort.  Plantasia Tropical Zoo currently houses three adults and nine baby Egyptian Tortoises, who weigh in at around 8-9 grams at birth.  This is about the weight of an average pair of earrings!

A newborn egyptian tortoise on a white surface next to a £1 coin

As a result of sexual dimorphism, the females are almost twice the size of the males, which tend also to have a larger tail.

Sexual Dimorphism – The occurrence of morphological differences (other than primary sexual characters) that distinguish males from females of a species of organism (e.g. male deer often have larger antlers than females, and the males of many birds have differing (often more brightly coloured) plumage).

T.Kleinmanni is classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Critically Endangered (CR), with an estimated 7500 left in the wild today.

IUCN red list table

They are currently considered one of the most endangered tortoise species in the world, already appearing extinct in their native Egypt.  Current status assessments predict complete extinction of this species within the next 20 years!


A huge and still growing demand for urbanisation and for growth within the agricultural industry causes extensive and rapid habitat destruction, a major contributor to the conservation status of the Egyptian Tortoise.  Individually, the Tortoise are at increased risk of injury or death by the construction of roads and railways and the traffic that goes on to utilise them. 

Cairo from a distance

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a view of a beach

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Besides the destruction of its habitat, one of the biggest threats to the Egyptian tortoise is the illegal pet trade.

a crate full of Egyptian tortoise

Intercepted shipment of Kleinmann’s tortoise from Libya for the illegal pet market, port of Genoa, 2005

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Due to its small size and rarity, it is a very desirable species within the international pet trade

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Specimens are collected from their natural environment and smuggled to countries around the world to be sold as pets. Many of these illegally shipped animals die during transport due to the poor conditions. 

a turtle on the ground

Kleinmann’s tortoise, carapace fractured during smuggling.

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Female Egyptian Tortoises typically lay up to 6 eggs per year, the success and viability of which is affected by a number of factors.  The removal of a significant number of individuals from a wild population creates challenges in terms of stabilising the population, particularly in a species which takes as long as 5-6 years to reach reproductive maturity.

Plantasia Tropical Zoo’s Egyptian Tortoise

The Egyptian tortoises at Plantasia Tropical Zoo came to us as a result of the illegal pet trade. Found stuffed into potato sacks by customs officials at an airport in Italy and temporarily placed at the Bioparco in Rome, they eventually joined the collection at Plantasia Tropical Zoo so that we could care for them and be involved in the conservation of this important species.

Six years ago, five adult tortoise came to Plantasia after an animal smuggler was caught illegally trafficking over 200 of the species in Italy.  The animals were set to be sold in the pet trade, a severe threat to species’ life all around the world.

The tortoise were taken to Zooroma, Rome – and became part of a Eurapean-wide programme to save the species, with them being redistributed to 40 zoos across the continent


Efforts have been made to mitigate the Egyptian tortoises’ role in the illegal pet trade.

Legal Protection             

In 1994 the IUCN Turtle Recovery Program, a joint effort of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission commissioned a field study to assess the status of Egyptian Tortoise in Egypt. Sherif Baha El Din, a leading Egyptian herpetological expert, conducted the study. 

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The findings determined that the Egyptian Tortoise had declined throughout its range in Egypt and was on the verge of extirpation from the country. This report confirmed that the Egyptian Tortoise is a globally endangered species and supported proposals that it be listed under Appendix I of the CITES Convention. 

The Egyptian government subsequently nominated the species to be upgraded from Appendix II to Appendix I of CITES, which was voted on and approved in November 1994 at a meeting of the parties to the convention. 

Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), offers legal protection to the species and prohibits its collection from the wild.

Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction.  Trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances.

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The species is also protected by Egyptian legislation.  Two important pieces of legislation, namely Agricultural Law No.53 of 1996  and Environmental Law (Law 4 of 1994)make it illegal to buy, sell or transport Egyptian tortoises without a specific permit. 

In Egypt there have been confiscations of Egyptian Tortoises by the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency and the police being sold at the Tunsi animal market (formerly held at Sayidi Aisha).

Abroad there have also been efforts to curb the illegal trade in Egyptian Tortoises. Two Egyptian sailors were arrested in northern England in 1998 selling Egyptian Tortoises on a street corner and were sentenced to four months in jail. One person has been fined in Sweden for selling illegal Egyptian Tortoises, and another investigation is underway, awaiting the prosecutor’s final decision of bringing the matter before the court.

To consolidate and build upon these efforts, TortoiseCare was established to promote the conservation of the Egyptian Tortoise and its habitats in Egypt and throughout its range

Breeding for Conservation

Many ex-situ breeding programmes now exist for the benefit of the conservation of this species. At Plantasia Tropical Zoo, we are currently part of a breeding programme which helps manage vulnerable and endangered species by providing a ‘safety net’ population. 

Without this active work of zoos, many species would simply no longer exist. Due to participation in the breeding programs, there are currently 9 babies living at Plantasia Tropical Zoo which have been successfully bred here.  Each is a valuable addition to the ‘safety net’ population. 

Factors affecting mitigation

Enforcement of current regulations is extremely difficult and various limitations make the legislative protection largely ineffective.

Despite decades of efforts to make the capturing and selling of these tortoises illegal, it is still going ahead probably due to their small size and rarity.

There is currently no legislation against the capture and sale of Egyptian Tortoise in Libya, where the species remains most abundant.  This lack of legal intervention leads to further decrease in number and increase in the vulnerability of the second-smallest species of tortoise in the world.

What can you do to help?

There are few things we can all do to help prevent the illegal trade in protected species. At Plantasia Tropical Zoo, we are not only contributing to the established programs in place, we also try to raise awareness through education.

Tortoise Trust have created a conservation programme called TortoiseCare which is dedicated to ensuring the Egyptian tortoises future in its natural habitat in the wild. They actively monitor the illegal trade of this species in Egypt and abroad and take in rescued Egyptian tortoises with the idea of eventually releasing them into the wild in a protected area. This programme continues to raise awareness of the importance of protecting this species, and you can learn more about what they do here:

You can do your part to preserve this amazing species, and many others involved in the illegal pet trade.  If you are thinking about taking on an Egyptian Tortoise as a pet, consider donating to a conservation charity instead.  

If you do decide to bring an Egyptian Tortoise or other exotic pet into your home, you can help by only or rescuing purchasing pets from reputable owners and breeders, and ensuring that species requiring CITES registration come with the necessary documentation.