Negev Tortoise Gets UN Attention Amid Extinction Threat

As the United Nations marks 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity, Israel is gaining attention from the world's largest wildlife agency as home to an endangered species.

Last week, the International Union for Conservation of Nature cited the Kleinmann's Tortoise, whose habitat stretches from Libya to Israel, as a wild animal in danger of extinction. It is primarily a desert animal that can be found in the sands of the Negev.

According to the IUCN, the Kleinmann's Tortoise is at the most severe stage that precedes total extinction. It should be noted that there is a separate species of these animals in Israel that is distinct from their relatives in the Sinai Peninsula. The animals in Egypt most likely became extinct.

The desert tortoise is smaller than the average turtle, and its shell is brighter. The IUCN claims that the species has become endangered due to the widespread international trafficking of turtles. Although international law forbids the smuggling and reselling of these animals, illicit transactions continue unmonitored.

Another critical factor that has contributed to their disappearance is the systematic destruction leveled upon their natural habitats. The most glaring example in Israel is the widespread turnover of western Negev lands from sand dunes into agricultural fields.

Problems from herding

An additional problem is the extensive herding of sheep, goats and cattle in both Israel and Egypt. This is compounded by the expansion of the municipal boundaries of towns and villages, which adversely impacts the flora and fauna of the natural habitat on which the tortoises are dependent. These include not only sand-covered areas in the desert hinterland but also the dunes which lie along the country's coastline.

It is worth noting that Israeli authorities have recently approved the expansion of agricultural territories in the Negev as well as the ground-breaking of new towns atop the sand dunes of the western Negev.

Boaz Shaham, the one of Israel's foremost experts on reptiles and amphibians, said the number of turtles in the country has dwindled to less than 2,000.

The IUCN recommends that Israel take steps to save the species, like expanding its natural habitat and designating the area a wildlife preserve. In addition, the agency says that laws against turtle trafficking must be more strictly enforced.