Once found throughout Egypt and Libya, this tortoise - one of the smallest in the world - effectively is extinct in Egypt as a result of habitat destruction. Although there are two populations in Libya, much of the coastline habitat has been lost. Today Egyptian tortoises continue to decline because of the illegal pet trade and hunting for folk medicine.
Egyptian tortoises are found along the North African coast on the Mediterranean coastal strip from Libya to past Egypt’s Nile Delta. On the verge of extinction, they can still be seen in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in Libya. They inhabit habitats which are desert and semi-desert, usually with compact gravel and sand plains, scattered rocks and sandy, shallow wadis, and also coastal salt-marsh areas, brushy areas with scrub thorn, and dry woodlands.
Egyptian tortoises are active mostly during warm periods and least active during very hot or very cold months. During cooler months, they are most active at midday, and in hot months they are only active in the early morning or the late afternoon, spending the remainder of the day hiding under the cover of a bush or in an animal burrow.
In captivity, Egyptian tortoises eat vegetables, fruit and grasses, but it is not known what they eat in the wild. They probably eat seasonal plants like leaves, grasses, flowers, fruits, and even cacti.
Egyptian tortoises are amongst the most poorly understood of the Mediterranean tortoises and little information is available about their mating behavior. Their mating system is most likely to be polygynous (one male to multiple females), and may be polyandrous (one female to many males). In the wild, courtship and mating have only been recorded in March, although in captivity, reproduction occurs in April and August to November. A remarkable feature of this tortoise’s breeding behavior is the distinctive, loud call made by males during mating, which is likened to a mourning dove’s call, quite unlike a sound made by any other Mediterranean tortoise. During courtship, the male seems to ram the female, and then there is sometimes a frantic chasing episode. They dig nests in sandy earth, where 1-5 eggs will be laid. Incubation is for about 2.5-3 months. When they hatch, the young only eat a small quantity of food; instead they prefer resting in the shade. Egyptian tortoises become mature at the age of 5 years.
The main threats to the Egyptian tortoise are habitat destruction and intensive commercial collection. Agricultural expansion, overgrazing, cultivation, and urban encroachment have meant enormous pressure on this species’ fragile and dwindling habitat, drastically reducing available vegetation for cover and food. In addition, in Egypt they have suffered heavily from collection for the pet trade, both national and international, which shifted its attention to Libyan animals after Egyptian subpopulations became extinct. Trade in this species in Libya is a major threat to the remaining world population.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total Egyptian tortoise population is around 7,470 individuals, of which approximately 5,000 are mature individuals. Currently this species is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) and its numbers today are decreasing.