Testudo werneri is one of the smallest tortoise species in the Mediterranean region, with a historical distribution in northeastern Egypt, Sinai, and parts of the Negev desert in Israel. Populations in Egypt are already practically extinct due to factors affecting their habitat and collection for the pet trade. Currently, T. werneri has a national Israel Red List status of Endangered and in 2003 it qualified globally for listing as Critically Endangered under current IUCN Red List Criteria.
The species' desert sands habitats are degrading rapidly because of human induced factors including tourism, unnatural predators attracted by human settlements, and pet trade collection. Less than 3 generations has seen a global population decline of 95% with the remaining estimated population of around 1,890-2,360 individuals restricted to an area of 700 km2 in northwestern Negev, Israel. True figures may be considerably less, and there is a clear potential extinction threat within the decade.
The Biblical Zoo is conducting a long term conservation program combining genetic research, research in the field, and the establishment of a breeding nucleus at the Zoo. A pilot reintroduction program has begun in the Negev as a feasibility test in preparation for a full-scale reintroduction program. Individuals from the Zoo's breeding nucleus have been transferred to other zoos in Israel and throughout the world, to ensure the species' future.
The project would ensure more accurate data which is needed for species management and conservation measures. Population growth within breeding centers, the establishment of new nature reserves in the sands of northwestern Negev in conjunction with effective management, as well as community education and awareness of known threat factors would enhance the survival prospects of the species.