by Whit Gibbons

April 28, 2003

Amid the continuous barrage of drumbeat news from the Middle East, I finally heard an intriguing and uplifting story of an entirely different kind. I interviewed Omar Attum. His story involves what he calls "desert mavericks" of the northern Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. He was not referring to people, but to the fascinating array of animals in the region. Many are small, such as the lesser sand viper, the smallest of Egypt's vipers, and the fennec, or desert fox, the smallest member of the dog family. But the heart of his story involved a tiny tortoise with babies about the size of a dime, and local Arabs, the Bedouin people.

Omar has been engaged in research and conservation efforts on the Egyptian tortoise while completing his doctoral program at the University of Louisville. He indicates that his project is "based on sound research that conserves a globally endangered species." Many worldwide conservation programs focus on imperiled species, but Omar's project has the added bonus of benefiting local communities.

The species under study is one of the smallest tortoises in the world. Large adult males may reach lengths of four inches; females are slightly larger. Omar likens them to "the size of a small baked potato." Their giant relatives, Galapagos tortoises, reach body weights a thousand times greater than these little denizens of the deserts.

The historical range of the Egyptian tortoise includes Libya and Israel. For many years, conservation biologists presumed the species to be extinct in Egypt, with the remaining known populations elsewhere being highly endangered. According to Omar, the persistence in the wild of these pygmies of the tortoise world was once seriously threatened by the pet trade. They continue to be "illegally collected in Libya and shipped to Egypt, where wildlife dealers smuggle them out of the country," but he says today their greatest threat is habitat destruction.

A recent survey along the Mediterranean coast brought even worse news. "More than 90 percent of the species' former habitat had been degraded by overgrazing (by camels and goats), massive agriculture projects, and resort development along the shores." Hoofed livestock cause problems for the tortoise not only because they may step on them but also because they eat the same plants and shrubs that tortoises eat and hide under. These environmental pressures are heaped atop the risks of living in a harsh habitat and being potential prey of natural predators such as the three-foot-long lizards called sand monitors.

But perhaps all is not lost for the Egyptian tortoise. For one thing, with the help of local Bedouins, Omar Attum recently discovered a wild tortoise population in Egypt that had been overlooked by pet trade collectors. Equally as remarkable as finding them is how he has set about protecting them. First, he has hired as research assistants Bedouin natives, who are more skilled trackers of local wildlife and more familiar with the terrain than an American like Omar. And by being involved in the conservation project, the Bedouins have developed a proprietary interest in plans to protect the tortoises. Egyptian tortoises belong to the people of the region, and their hands-on involvement helps ensure that the tortoises will be protected.

Adding to its success, the conservation project is now sponsored by several major conservation organizations, including the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency. Omar also assists with an unusual yet effective approach, a cottage industry that benefits the tortoise and their guardians. Bedouin women, renowned for their embroidery skills, have been encouraged to direct their talents toward fashioning a variety of tortoise-related handicrafts. Pillows, purses, and key chains modeled after the Egyptian tortoise are sold on the open market, and all profits go to the local people, strengthening the pride Bedouins of the region have in their role as tortoise protectors.

Research is the foundation for any conservation project, and Omar has covered this aspect well with solid scientific study. But he has taken the additional step of involving members of the local community in the conservation process, so that the indigenous people and their culture benefit, as do the tortoise and other endangered animals. Omar hopes that through similar efforts elsewhere, the little tortoise of the desert will once again be a part of the fascinating native fauna.

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