A preliminary assessment carried out at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy has discovered a small population of critically endangered pancake tortoises.
Seven pancake tortoises were found at the conservancy during an exercise meant to establish the number of endangered reptile and amphibian species.
The discovery extends the distribution range of the species in Kenya, with past studies showing the distribution of tortoises in Kenya lie within the arid and semi-arid corridor from Marsabit County southwards to Kitui County.
Pancake tortoises are highly valued for international pet trade.
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Scientists from the Lewa and the National Museum of Kenya participated in the joint effort to design an appropriate conservation strategy for reptiles and amphibians in the conservancy.
According to the researchers, the distribution of pancake tortoise is restricted and patchy.
“The tortoise population was recorded from four out of 14 potential sites identified during the assessment,” read a statement from the researchers.
The head of conservation at Lewa Geoffrey Chege yesterday said there was a need to design a long-term conservation strategy for pancake tortoises and other reptiles and amphibians on the conservancy by carrying out detailed studies and regular monitoring.
“Even though this discovery is significant partly due to the protection status of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, this population is rather isolated and there is a need for further studies to determine its viability,” Chege noted.
The pancake species is among the six land tortoises mostly found in East Africa.
Its population has also been recorded in Tanzania and Zambia, but the species continue to face exploitation for international pet trade.
“It is considered that geology, vegetation, altitude, and climate are the main factors that limit the distribution of pancake tortoises. For instance, more than 80 per cent of Kenyan records are below 1,000 metres mean sea level.
“The occurrence is highly influenced by the availability of suitable micro-habitats. Generally, they inhabit rock crevices of any orientation from horizontal to vertical,” the conservator said.
The pancake tortoise is currently listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The researchers observed that live animal collection for international pet trade is the biggest threat to the tortoise. Habitat degradation from rock destruction is also a major threat.
Other threats include deforestation and cultivation.
A higher conservation measure for the pancake tortoise was recently achieved when the 18th Conference of Parties of CITES adopted a proposal for its listing in Appendix I that has species threatened with extinction.