Rome's main zoo has successfully bred several rare Egyptian tortoises whose parents were rescued from a smuggler's suitcase in 2005.
The first egg hatched in April, six more followed this month, and there are still several eggs waiting to hatch, said Stefano Micarelli, the head reptile keeper at Rome's Biopark zoo.
"These animals are so rare in nature that we are trying to breed them so we can have a stock of these animals also in captivity," he told AP Television News.
The Egyptian tortoise, known as Testudo Kleinmanni, is protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES. It is an Appendix I reptile, meaning it is afforded the highest protection. Trade in such animals, many of which are threatened with extinction, is permitted only in exceptional circumstances.
On Oct. 26, 2005, Italian forest rangers working at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport became suspicious when they noticed a passenger on a flight from Libya waiting impatiently for his luggage. They stopped to check his bags, and inside found 275 of the rare tortoises, packed in a bag.
Ivan Severoni, an investigator with the forest rangers, said the tortoises were destined for illegal traffickers in southern and central Italy who can command up to Ђ400 for each living specimen.
"We did some investigations after we sequestered these animals and we discovered that the people who were transporting and selling these tortoises were not aware of what they were selling, their rarity and their economic value," he said.
Egyptian tortoises, distinctive by their small size and golden hue, are very difficult to maintain in captivity, requiring the very warm and dry temperatures they find in their native desert habitats, around 25 degrees Celsius (77F). Currently they are found primarily in Libya.
Breeders at Rome's Biopark had tried for two years to breed the surviving tortoises, but without success until this spring. Micarelli said the Italian government was working with Libyan officials to return some of the tortoises back to the zoo in Tripoli.