A large group of friends and supporters of the Western Swamp Tortoise gathered at the Ellen Brook Nature Reserve – home to one of the last wild populations of the critically endangered reptile – to celebrate 50 years of scientific monitoring of this species. On the 2nd of October 1963, then Bachelor of Science Honours student Andrew Burbidge, marked and released female Number 4, an adult estimated to be 15 years old. Fifty years to the day, radio-tracked by current Western Swamp Tortoise scientist Gerald Kuchling and accompanied by the Minister for the Environment, Albert Jacobs, Dr Burbidge once again held Number 4, now 65 years old.
The occasion was a fitting tribute to the work done by many people who were there to support the Western Swamp Tortoise. Introduced by the Head of the Western Swamp Tortoise Recovery Team, Craig Olejnik, Minister Albert Jacobs categorised the rediscovery of the supposedly extinct animal as ‘a fairy tale’. Dr Andrew Burbidge then spoke, detailing the difficulty of finding the tortoises in the wetlands during his doctoral research, and the work needed to try to adapt the 1960s radio transmitters, all of which had been designed for larger animals. He quickly identified the need to build very small transmitters which would transmit for at least 6 months, would not drown a tortoise with their weight and that worked both underwater and on land. Luckily, silicon transistors, which would work underwater, were just coming onto the market to replace germanium transistors—which would not.
By the late 1970s it became apparent that the tortoises were declining rapidly in the wild, in part because of predation by foxes. To make matters worse, the small captive colony at Perth Zoo was not breeding. Andrew attempted to breed some tortoises and discovered the incubated eggs needed cooling to trigger hatching. This mimics the situation in the wild, where hatching coincides with the first rains of winter running into the places underground where the tortoises have nested and then aestivated over summer.
When Austrian scientist Gerald Kuchling arrived in Perth in 1987, with a wealth of knowledge on threatened freshwater turtles and captive breeding, the recovery of the Western Swamp Tortoise moved forward another step.
Gerald’s work has focussed on getting the diet and conditions right for breeding in captivity, as well as monitoring the species in the wild. Due to his exemplary work, the Perth Zoo has been able to produce 20 – 30 hatchlings each year for eventual release to the wild. In his pioneering work, Gerald has also studied optimal conditions for tortoises in the wild and is currently advising a new crop of scientists studying the physiology of the animals and the hydrology of the swamps with a view to translocating our precious animals to areas less affected by climate change.
Another key person in the recovery of the Western Swamp Tortoise was also present for the anniversary: Mr WR Martyn, who generously donated the land on which stands the crucial nature reserves containing the last wild tortoises.
With the dedicated band of scientists and conservationists currently involved with the Western Swamp Tortoise, its future looks increasingly brighter.