Why are Desert Tortoises Endangered?

Tortoises have been around for many millions of years, but the species have changed dramatically over time.

The species living today haven’t been around for that long since they have evolved from other species themselves. So, what happened to the older ones?

The simplest answer is that they went extinct for various reasons, some of which we will analyze today. That’s because whatever happened to those species will eventually happen to all of them at a given moment in time.

So, today we will discuss desert tortoises and why so many of them rank as endangered at the time of writing this article.

Reasons Desert Turtles are Endangered

Desert turtles are very hardy and resilient animals, but that doesn’t mean they don’t struggle. Currently, there are several natural and human-made threats that the turtles need to face to restore their ranks and escape their endangered status.

These include:

Habitat Destruction and Degradation

There are 2 points worth mentioning here:

  • Natural destruction and degradation
  • Manmade destruction and degradation

The first point refers to natural changes over time, mostly in terms of temperature. Temperature shifts have occurred for millions of years, and their impact and installment can vary in intensity and duration.

Sometimes, the climate changes too fast, which leads to many species being unable to adapt, so they perish. There’s no denying that the climate is changing today, partly due to natural weather shifts and partly due to human activity.

But it’s the latter that delivers the most significant impact. Not in terms of climate change necessarily, but in terms of the humans’ overall impact on the turtles’ native habitat.

Urbanization, mining activities, and agriculture are some of the primary triggers of habitat modification and degradation. The turtle is being forced to adapt at a pace that doesn’t match the reptile’s biological programming.

Illegal Collection

I would argue that collecting turtles illegally is more impactful for the species than habitat destruction. That’s because habitat destruction produces collateral damages, while illegal collection and hunting produce intentional damages.

In other words, turtles aren’t targeted specifically in the first case, but they are in the second. Poaching and trophy collectors can decimate an entire population relatively fast.

Most collectors hunt desert tortoises for trophies and medicinal purposes and even target their eggs. This can impact the population’s numbers more severely than any other factor.

Predation and Disease

This has more to do with the natural biorhythm of the ecosystem. Turtles face several predators in the wild, including snakes, coyotes, raccoons, and others.

Diseases are also notably impactful, causing tortoises to experience numerous health problems. Some of these diseases are natural-occurring, while others relate to human activity and can be vastly more damaging.

Human activity affects the tortoise population in 2 primary ways:

  • The introduction of non-native species – Bullfrogs and crayfish come to mind. These animals carry diseases that can infect tortoises and overpass their immune systems with ease. The species itself may adapt to the pathogens with time, but it takes several generations for it to achieve that. By that time, the species itself may dwindle to the point where self-sustainability may no longer be an option. Especially when pairing the effect of the invasive species with other threats, several of which we’ve already discussed.
  • Environmental contaminants – Airborne or otherwise, toxic contaminants can also impact the turtle population, either directly or indirectly, by infecting the animal’s food and water. These contaminants are the result of human activity in agriculture and the industrial sector, among other sources.

Conservation Efforts for the Protection of Desert Tortoises

Conservation efforts are constantly underway to protect and enhance the population of desert tortoises.

Some of the efforts put to work in this sense include:

  • Habitat conservation and restoration – There are several conservation organizations working to restore, protect, and rebuild the tortoises’ natural habitat. These efforts include monitoring land acquisition in the region, restoring the habitat via replanting and demarking the ecosystem into safe zones, and executing specific conservation planning and goals.
  • Disease prevention and management – This is a more delicate topic that requires an equally delicate approach. Some of the most notable threats include respiratory diseases and shell rot, but tortoises can struggle with a variety of other disorders. The prevention plan relies on monitoring the local population to identify the emergent signs of an impending disease. The focus is on the more contagious variants that can lead to devastating outbreaks, as was the case with the 1980’s respiratory disease that almost decimated the tortoise population in the Mojave Desert. The program also pursues the creation of new treatments and vaccines specifically designed to stop an outbreak in its tracks.
  • Repelling natural predators – Tortoises have a variety of natural predators, including foxes, coyotes, feral cats, snakes, etc. The goal is to improve the security of the population by controlling the number of predators in the region. This involves either resorting to targeted hunting or relocating some of the animals to make more room for tortoises.

It’s important to note that the conservation efforts also depend on educating the general public on the matter as well. For instance, it’s important for people not to feed the tortoises’ predators and, thus, help the population expand.

Or not to contaminate the reptile’s natural ecosystem with plastics, food residues, or other contaminants that could jeopardize their health.

The Legality of Keeping Desert Tortoises as Pets

The legality of keeping desert tortoises in captivity is a delicate subject because it is widely illegal to keep wild desert tortoises as pets.

In many states, it is even illegal to keep captive-bred specimens because that, too, supports the hunting and collection of wild specimens.

However, some states, like Clark County, allow you to have desert tortoises as pets with the following conditions:

  • Your specimen has been captive-born, not collected from the wild
  • You will not breed your desert tortoises, even if we’re talking about captive-bred specimens
  • You will not release your tortoises in the wild at any point
  • You provide the tortoise with adequate living conditions

Aside from the legal aspect of it, keep in mind that desert tortoises, no matter the species, are very pretentious about their living conditions.

They need more space than you would expect and are prone to stress when kept in closed ecosystems. This makes them very difficult pets that require specialized care and constant monitoring.

Because it this, it is often argued that keeping desert tortoises as pets, although legal in some states, it’s actually immoral.


Desert tortoises are amazing animals that play a critical role in their respective ecosystems.

They are typically resilient and adaptable, but they often require help to overcome the ever-increasing threats to their lifestyle and habitat.

Be mindful of that next time you plan on getting a desert tortoise for yourself.

Robert from ReptileJam

Hey, I'm Robert, and I have a true passion for reptiles that began when I was just 10 years old. My parents bought me my first pet snake as a birthday present, which sparked my interest in learning more about them. read more...