EAST DESERTS ARE FULL OF MAVERICKS
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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