The Egyptian tortoise, Testudo kleinmanni, is the smallest species of tortoise inhabiting the northern hemisphere. Once known as Leith's tortoise, its distribution is limited to a narrow range of coastal desert in the southeastern Mediterranean Basin from Libya to Israel. Nowhere occurring more than 90 km inland, the Egyptian tortoise is adapted to one of the driest habitats supporting chelonians on earth, some areas receiving as little as 50 mm of annual precipitation. This tiny tortoise is capable of excreting either uric acid or less concentrated urea as a metabolic adaptation to its extreme environment. Few other chelonian species are so adapted. Additionally, the Egyptian tortoise is active during the winter anprefers lower temperatures than the larger, somewhat similar and better known, spur-thighed tortoise, Testudo graeca. Egyptian tortoises typically utilize rodent burrows for shelter when not active on the surface but do not excavate their own burrows. In Israel, this species is known as tsav hayabasha' hamidbari' - the desert tortoise.
While desert monitor lizards and birds of prey, including ravens, are among its natural predators, T. kleinmanni is severely threatened by man and his activities. Habitat loss has fragmented populations throughout the range. Although ostensibly protected in Egypt, the tortoises are sold openly in Cairo pet shops. Specimens from a coastal nature reserve near Alexandria were offered for sale to the reptile curator of the Giza Zoo in 1984. A year later, shipments of several dozen specimens, mostly males, were legally exported from Egypt to western Europe and the United States. There has been high mortality among the exported tortoises and no reported captive breeding. Until the 1940's, T. kleinmanni was bred repeatedly at the Giza Zoo. Today, captives there languish from a "wasting disease" and are regularly replaced by freshly caught specimens from dwindling natural populations. There is no longer reproduction at the Giza Zoo.