by Brian Bush, 9 Birch Place, Stoneville, Western Australia 6081
This small (carapace length to 15 cm) fresh-water turtle was discovered in 1839 and described to science in 1901, it was all but forgotten until 1953 when it was rediscovered near Perth, Western Australia. Only 35 or so individuals are believed to occur in the wild and in excess of 100 are being held at the Perth zoo. It is considered by many to be the world's rarest reptile.
With the summer drying out of the ephemeral swamp at Ellen Brook nature reserve where it occurs, this turtle aestivates in deep cracks and fissures in the clay. When the swamp fills in June and July it becomes active. It has low fecundity, producing up to 5 eggs in October and November which take as long as 190 days to hatch, and slow maturation. It is believed to have become critically endangered due to habitat clearing, increasing aridity, predation, inappropriate fire regimes and drainage (Cogger et al., 1993).The Western swamp turtle is facing extinction in the wild and was placed on CITES Appendix I in July, 1975 which at present precludes what I propose here. It occurs naturally in a very small area at Ellen Brook NR on the outskirts of the major Western Australian city of Perth. A Recovery Team was set up in 1990 comprising members from the Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM), the University of Western Australia (UWA), Curtin University, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Australian Nature Conservation Agency (now Environment Australia). A captive breeding program is ongoing at the Perth zoo as part of a recovery plan now in place (Burbidge and Kuchling, 1994). A CALM maintained terrestrial predator-proof fence has been placed around both Ellen Brook and Twin Swamps NR's and the reintroduction of captive bred individuals to the wild at both reserves has commenced. Dr Gerald Kuchling (UWA) and Dr Andrew Burbidge (CALM) have been involved in studying its ecology. Dean Burford (Perth zoo) has contributed to the development of successful husbandry techniques, culminating in reliable captive breeding. All those involved, including many not mentioned here, should be commended for their efforts. However, will it be enough?
Any program implemented for the conservation of a taxon must be undertaken with a long-term view in mind. If we do not do this the next generation will experience the same problems we are having today. If perpetuity of the present biodiversity is the goal, especially with the earth undergoing rapid changes as a result of the ever increasing human population, we in Australia have to forsake the traditional official attitude towards our fauna of going it alone.
Continuing the status quo, or improving this so that two populations exist, concerning the Western swamp turtle cannot be considered a successful conservation program. For it to be so this turtle must be considered safe as a long-term biological entity so that the program and any peripheral support can be wound down freeing up resources for use in other projects. If this can be attained with the bonus of a return of the capital invested then it is truly a successful outcome, but more on that later.
Suitable alternative areas of habitat, unless away from development, would be subjected to the same detrimental pressure as Ellen Brook and Twin Swamps and should not be considered as adequate in the long term.
1. Currently the captive population is maintained at one location, the Perth zoo. In the event of some unforeseen pathogen decimating this group, the recovery program will be put back years.
2. The husbandry expertise developed during the recovery program is restricted to too few people. If they should leave the program, a void in experienced people would occur.
3. The small area of wild habitat and its proximity to Perth cause it to be continually under pressure from degradation resulting from the ever increasing development of surrounding areas.
4. The local human population increase will place considerable pressure on future governments to allow the turtle reserves to be used for residential development. I can not help wondering what the situation will be like in three or four generations, let alone three or four hundred years!
Some of the following suggestions are going to be difficult to accept by many of those involved in traditional Australian fauna conservation programs. However I personally believe we all need to exercise some lateral thinking if successful results are the goal. I believe also that the Western swamp turtle is the ideal subject for this type of program: its very restricted distribution allows for easy poaching control, it is appealing, long-lived and comparatively easy to maintain.
First there needs to be a buffer between any unforeseen decimation of the captive population. A successful breeding program is already in place at the Perth zoo, but this is the only facility where this is presently occurring. A portion of captive bred individuals must be provided to other interested zoos both in Australia and overseas. This would also considerably broaden the available expertise on their husbandry.
The natural wild population and any artificially established populations have very little long-term future for reasons mentioned above (see Long-term Problems *3 & *4). Any reintroduction should not be restricted to areas of habitat similar to Ellen Brook and Twin Swamps, but also include alternative areas of permanent water such as Lake Leschenaultia, Mundaring weir, Canning and Serpentine dams etc, Although research to date suggests it will not do well in areas of permanent deep water, this may accelerate any potential for adaptation and contribute towards the establishment of an alternative ecology in this turtle. For example, in these [alternative] areas it may be found to continue to aestivate during summer, or in some individuals/situations it may not require to do this. It has previously been found in agricultural dams adjacent to Ellen Brook (Bush et al., 1995).
This brings me to the most radical component of this plan: the involvement of private keepers [keeping] world-wide. It also allows an immediate financial return on this turtle's conservation. Fifty pairs initially should be made available to private people who can demonstrate turtle husbandry capabilities by their local or wider contribution in this area. These could be sold at say $20,000 per pair (a return of one million dollars), an investment that would guarantee genuine attempts at breeding. At a later date, depending on the success or otherwise of the private breeders, an advertising campaign could be implemented promoting the Western swamp turtle as a 'state of the art' pet: attractive, easily maintained and owners would be contributing to its conservation. The funding for this advertising could come from the initial sales of the original breeding stock. Eventually free market forces would come into play reducing the cost as the numbers increase but, by this time, those original private breeders successfully breeding turtles would have their investment returned along with any profit made during early sales. The beauty of programs such as this is they become self perpetuating. Once established the original government department's involvement can be reduced to monitoring the wild population, while now available resources can be directed to other projects.
Samples of success in this type of program (although informal) are the Australian Collett's snake and the American grey king snake. The brightly coloured blacksnake (Pseudechis colletti) is rare to sparse (Ehmann, 1992) in the wild but has become so common in captivity that it is difficult to give them away (pers. obs.). One of the rarest North American snakes (Lampropeltis alterna) known from only five specimens before the 2nd World War has been collected and avidly bred in captivity by keepers. It is now the most frequently exhibited species in both private and zoo collections (Tennant, 1985).
The following annotation was included after Dr Kuchling's response: The two abovementioned snake species are safe as biological entities [in spite of their respective ecologies] in a rapidly changing environment because of private keeping. We have got to get past the mistaken belief that we can halt change when we can only divert it. No conservation program is going to succeed if our objective is the status quo. We must look further along the path and attempt to anticipate the many hidden bends along the way - even when planning for tomorrow, we should not be so narrow-minded so as not to contemplate the next year, or even the next century! Further to Gerald's metaphor included in his response below - if we were sending a team to Darwin let us not restrict all the team to walking but allow a portion to travel by motor vehicle, boat and plane! That is if we truly believe the ultimate goal is reaching Darwin!
By Gerald Kuchling, Principal Investigator, Western Swamp Tortoise Recovery Team
(27 May 1997)
In his paper "the Western Swamp Turtle (Pseudemydura umbrina): a radical conservation plan", Brian Bush reviews the current conservation strategy for the Western Swamp Turtle or Tortoise (WST), defines some long-term problems, and proposes solutions which he considered to be "radical". Although I agree with many points he raises, I doubt the rational behind and the feasibility of two of the three proposed solutions and I believe that some of Bush's underlying assumptions are dubious. In the following I only focus on those points of Bush's proposal I disagree with.
Bush's main critique of the current WST recovery plan is that improving the status quo (= only one wild population) so that two populations exist cannot be considered a successful conservation program. He points out that "for it to be so this turtle must be considered safe as a long-term biological entity". I agree that this has to be the long-term goal for any serious species conservation program, but this clearly is the goal of the current WST conservation program. Bush obviously confuses the success criteria of a short-term (ten year) plan with the goals of the over all conservation program. If you develop a program, say to walk from Perth to Darwin, to reach Darwin by foot is your goal. You may develop a plan for the first ten days and work out how far you will walk every day and where you will be in ten days time and define criteria to evaluate success or failure of your progress and of that plan. The fact that your ten day criterion of success may not yet be Darwin does not imply that your program to walk from Perth to Darwin is doomed and can never be successful; it only implies that ten days may not be a realistic time period to reach this goal.
Bush further states that "suitable alternative areas of habitat, unless away from development,.... should not be considered as adequate in the long term". He comes back to this assertion under points 3 and 4 of the long-term problems where he suggests that the local human population will pressure future governments to allow residential development in the turtle reserves. I do not deny that potential future developments in the area may impact on the reserves or on alternative areas of habitat. However, my own experience with local people (although some journalists tried hard to find evidence suggesting the opposite) and the results of all recent opinion polls I know of do not support Bush's pessimistic prediction of future anti-environmental community attitudes in Perth or Australia. Having grown up and worked in much denser populated central Europe and doing conservation work in Madagascar, I am frightened how little of our world's biodiversity would be saved and conserved if we dismiss to protect biodiversity rich habitats now simply because we cannot exclude that some people may consider developing them in the future ("in three or four generations, let alone three or four hundred years"). Bush's radical proposal offers valuable WST habitat on a silver plate to developers. I will never accept this. To make my point, I advocate fighting for and conserving every bit of the last remaining Western Swamp Tortoise habitat.
Concerning the other "radical solutions" proposed by Bush, I agree that the first proposal, to provide a portion of captive bred WSTs to other interested zoos as an insurance against catastrophes, is a sound strategy.
I believe that Bush's second proposal, to release WSTs into unsuitable habitat to accelerate adaptation and to help them establish an alternative ecology, would simply be an incredible waste of individuals of the world's rarest turtle which are urgently needed for reintroduction into existing suitable habitat. The species is long lived and mobile; if it had the potential for the proposed adaptations to permanent water, it would have made use of it without waiting for us to muck around. The fact that, when their habitat is drained, WSTs sometimes make short-term use of agricultural dams does not indicate that they can establish populations in the habitats proposed for their introduction by Bush.
The third and, as Bush believes, most radical component of his radical solutions concerns the world-wide involvement of private keepers to breed WSTs. Even considering the best possible outcome I fail to understand how this action could ever even remotely satisfy Bush's own definition of a successful conservation program, which requires that the Western Swamp Turtle must be safe as a long-term biological entity. I do not think that pets, dispersed world-wide into transient expedients of - compared to WSTs - short or medium lived reptile keepers, vulnerable to their vagaries and to the whims of their heirs, can be considered part of a long-term biological entity. Having visited the facilities of some of the world's best private turtle keepers and breeders I do not dismiss the possibility that a few of them might be able to succeed in breeding WSTs, but even so I cannot see how this would, in praxis, contribute to the conservation of the species. Bush provides examples of two rare and sparse snakes which are avidly bred in captivity by private keepers and one of which is now the most frequently exhibited snake species. I believe these activities to be commendable, but I am not aware that these "programs" contribute to or support the conservation of the species involved, other than by making further collection of wild conspecifics for the pet trade unattractive and superfluous. I consider private reptile keeping and breeding a worthwhile activity, but per se it neither equals nor supports conservation.
Bush's proposition to involve private turtle keepers world wide in WST conservation is not as new an idea as he seems to believe. Groups which raised and donated significant sums of money specifically for the reintroduction of captive bred WSTs into suitable habitat include the British Chelonia Group, the California Turtle & Tortoise Club, the AG Schildkröten of the DGHT (Germany), and the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society. Of those groups of private turtle keepers, the California Turtle & Tortoise Club in particular has first hand experience what may happen if the keeping of pet tortoises is confounded with species and habitat conservation: during the 1980s, endangered Californian Desert Tortoise populations crashed to less than 20% of their former strengths due to diseases which were introduced into the wild by released pet tortoises. However, there certainly is potential for interested Western Australian Amateur Herpetologists to get involved in WST conservation without keeping them as pets. For example, a Friends of the Western Swamp Tortoise Group is currently being formed which will coordinate volunteer work for WST habitat restoration.
I also think some of Bush's assumptions concerning captive breeding of WSTs and of their suitability as 'state of the art' pets are, at best, wishful thinking. Bush asserts that the fact that WSTs are appealing, long-lived and comparatively easy to maintain makes them an ideal subject for pets. What he seems to overlook is that, although the program at Perth Zoo is very successful, WSTs are not and never were easy to breed in captivity, even in relatively large outdoor enclosures in their natural climate. At Perth Zoo and elsewhere, only people who are not involved in the breeding operation believe it to be easy and straight forward. Until now, I only know a single person (who happens to be I myself) who established a successful breeding operation for WSTs, and the reason for that is not that other people never tried. These other people include one of the largest private turtle/tortoise keepers in the world, who had been (illegally) keeping two male and one female WST for more than 15 years. Bush's ideas are neither new nor are they untested: this private turtle keeper, for example, is very keen to breed WSTs and to sell their offspring world wide to other turtle freaks, but he never succeeded in breeding them, even so the adults may (or may not) be easy to maintain.
Finally, Bush's suggestion that 50 pairs initially should be made available to private people world-wide seems to be wishful thinking too, considering that, at present, the known world number of adult pairs is barely 20. If, as Bush proposes, an adult or subadult pair is sold for $ 20,000 to raise a return of one million dollars, it would be a clear case of government agencies selling out public property and national heritage far below its value and its replacement costs. Although gaining a quick buck in this way, without concern for the interests and needs of the people and the society, may be in line with the practices and political ethics of our current government, state as well as federal, and although I am sure this proposal will please many politicians and developers, I as a member of WASAH do not approve that our president promotes a clearing sale of the world's rarest turtle in order to fill up government tills. To adopt Bush's proposal at that stage would, indeed, be a radical as well as a final solution: it would eliminate once and for ever the basis for future quarrels about Western Swamp Tortoise conservation.