The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today listed the Egyptian tortoise -- a terrestrial reptile from Libya, Egypt and Israel -- as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The Service is also implementing a 4(d) rule to provide for further conservation safeguards for the species.
The ESA provides numerous benefits to foreign species, primarily by prohibiting activities such as import, export, take, interstate and foreign commerce. By regulating these activities, the United States can help conserve and recover this iconic tortoise for future generations.
The Egyptian tortoise is the only dwarf tortoise occurring in the northern hemisphere. It is the smallest and least-known tortoise species inhabiting the Mediterranean basin and the second smallest species of tortoise in the world.
The species was historically found on both sides of the Nile River in Libya, Egypt and the western Negev Desert in Israel. Currently, the species resides in a narrow coastal zone in Libya and east of the Nile River in North Sanai, Egypt and Israel. The Service estimates there are only 11,000 Egyptian tortoises left in the wild.
Primary threats to the species include habitat loss and degradation, and collection for the pet trade. Over the past 60 years, the Egyptian tortoise population has plummeted by approximately 90 percent and the species has lost 80 to 90 percent of its historical range.
Section 4(d) of the ESA allows the Service to issue regulations necessary to conserve imperiled species. Accordingly, the Service is proposing a 4(d) rule for the Egyptian tortoise that would prohibit import, export, take, possession and other acts associated with the commercial trade of the species.
The rule will provide an exception for interstate commerce from public institutions to other public institutions, specifically museums, zoological parks and scientific institutions. The Service may also issue permits to carry out otherwise prohibited activities, such as scientific research or projects that enhance the survival of the species in the wild.
The Egyptian tortoise was listed under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1995. On June 9, 2014, Friends of Animals petitioned the Service to list the Egyptian tortoise as threatened or endangered under the ESA. On April 10, 2015, the Service published a 90-day finding that found that listing might be warranted.
The Egyptian tortoise is mostly found in desert and semi-desert areas, shoreline grasses at the edges of salt lakes or salt marshes and areas of scrub thorn in a narrow coastal zone in North Africa and Israel in the southeast Mediterranean. The species prefers areas with sandy soils, dunes, fair coverage from bushes and small shrubs and solidified sands with denser plant cover. Thermal buffering from shrubs and both annual and perennial plants to eat are essential for the species’ long-term survival.
The most distinguishing characteristic of the Egyptian tortoise is its remarkably small size. Females are generally a bit larger than males. They usually have a carapace length over 4.33 inches and weigh approximately 10.6-12.4 ounces. Male’s carapace length is between 3.54-3.93 inches and they weigh approximately 5.6-8.8 ounces.
The final rule to list the Egyptian tortoise as threatened under the ESA will publish in the Federal Register March 30, 2023, at www.regulations.gov by searching under docket number FWS-HQ-ES-2020-0114. The rule will become effective May 1, 2023.
To learn more about the Service’s Branch of Foreign Species, visit: https://www.fws.gov/media/foreign-species-fact-sheet.
Today’s announcement comes as the ESA turns 50 years old in 2023. Throughout the year, the Department of the Interior will celebrate the ESA's importance in preventing imperiled species' extinction, promoting the recovery of wildlife and conserving the habitats upon which they depend. The ESA has been highly effective and credited with saving 99% of listed species from extinction. Thus far, more than 100 species of plants and animals have been delisted based on recovery or reclassified from endangered to threatened based on improved conservation status, and hundreds more species are stable or improving thanks to the collaborative actions of Tribes, federal agencies, state and local governments, conservation organizations and private citizens.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information, visit www.fws.gov and connect with us on social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr and YouTube.