Congratulations to our Tunisian field assistant, Chawki Najjar!

July 22, 2018

Chawki Najjar, a young Tunisian veterinarian, joined Marwell Wildlife’s team in Tunisia as a volunteer during his last year studying Veterinary Medicine. Assisting Marwell’s Field Biologist, Dr. Marie Petretto, his motivation, ability and willingness to learn were so remarkable that we were only too happy to support him when he expressed his wish to undertake a Master’s Degree in Environmental Ecology.

After two years of hard work, combining classes at the University El Manar and his field work, we are delighted to report that he passed with a high-level distinction.  

His research project was carried out with our ongoing FAKROUN Project, which addressed the conservation of the native Spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca nabeulensis) in Tunisia. This species is under threat because of illegal collections for the global pet trade, habitat fragmentation, fires, disease and genetic impoverishment. As such, the spur-thighed tortoise is classed as a threatened species on the IUCN Red List.  

Through determination and skill, Chawki learnt how to track these small reptiles, which are experts at blending in with the scrub habitat in which they live. One of our goals is to evaluate the status of the remaining populations in the wild, not only population size and distribution, but also to identify their needs and the threats to their survival. 

Of wider concern is the impact of Crimean-Congo Haemorrhagic Fever (CCHF), which is spread by ticks that attach themselves to the tortoises and feed on their blood. Understanding the threats posed by this rapidly emerging disease was a key part of Chawki’s work. 

During the course of his research, Chawki covered over 2,000km of transects and repeatedly searched 59 sites across North Tunisia, often on hands and knees. From these immense efforts, he recorded data from 147 wild tortoises and collected nearly 1,200 ticks for disease screening. Chawki’s examiners were particularly impressed that the methodology used had potential to be integrated in future herpetological studies in Tunisia and we are looking forward continuing to study this charismatic animal. 

Through his work, Chawki also raised a very interesting question regarding possible links between tortoise conservation and human health. In particular, questions about the role of the illegal pet trade in potentially exacerbating the spread of CCHF to humans have been raised, and have already started to be addressed. Understanding the ecology of these tortoises is therefore of great importance, and this has sparked the interest of the Pasteur Institute of Tunis and brought them in to collaborate on this research. 

We are very thankful to Pr. Elyes Zhioua and the Pasteur Institute of Tunis for their support and also for providing the venue for Chawki’s dissertation viva on 31st January. We are also grateful to the General Directorate of Forestry (Ministry of Agriculture) who provides the formal framework and all the people that are invaluable support on the ground. And once again, well done to Chawki – we wish him well in his future endeavours and have full confidence that he will achieve his goals and have a great career as one of the next generation conservationists.