As western swamp tortoise crawls away from critically endangered list, group remembers Bullsbrook man who saved species from the brink of extinction

Chair of the Friends of the western swamp tortoise Jan Bant.  Picture: David Baylis d466835
Chair of the Friends of the western swamp tortoise Jan Bant. Picture: David Baylis d466835

THE western swamp tortoise may not still be alive today if not for the actions of former Bullsbrook resident Archie Gates, according to Friends of the Western Swamp Tortoise chair Jan Bant.

Mrs Bant said in 1953 Mr Gates found a western swap tortoise on Warbrook Road in Bullsbrook, which was thought to have been extinct for 100 years.

Mr Gates’ cousin Robert Boyd, who was a member of the WA Naturalists Club, said he took it to the club for further investigation.

“I’ve always been involved with natural history and wildlife,” Mr Boyd said.

“My cousin, Archie Gates, lived in a little cottage on Warbrook Road and he found a tortoise travelling north across the road at Bullsbrook and he stopped and picked it up and passed it on to me.

“I took it to the WA Naturalists’ Club’s show-and-tell that month and no one knew what it was either. It didn’t raise eyebrows; there were a number of naturalists there, but they brushed it off as an introduced species from another state.”

It was not long after that Mr Gates found another smaller tortoise in the same place, with the assumption that the species was moving between the two wetlands in search of food.

Mr Boyd said he took the tortoises along to the next naturalists’ meeting.

“That started a kind of investigative rumpus amongst all the naturalists that were there,” he said.

“They thought it was a new species, even to the point that they came up with a new name for it.

“We at home thought it should have been called Emydura boydii or gatesii, but it didn’t get a name because in fact it had already been identified and documented in Europe, in Vienna.”

Since the western swamp tortoise was rediscovered in Bullsbrook, extensive research and breeding programs have got underway to protect the species and ensure its survival.

The species is currently listed as critically endangered, but thanks to a breeding program at Perth Zoo and volunteers, it is thought that the listing will be downgraded to endangered in the next five years.

Mrs Bant said if it was not for Mr Gates the species might have eventually become extinct.

“What he did was important because the species was thought to be extinct for 100 years and once they knew it was alive, scientists knew where to find them and could protect them,” she said.

“If he hadn’t found them then this beautiful species may never have survived.”

Mr Boyd said his cousin was very proud of his rare find.

“It’s been a source of family pride and he was chuffed that he found the tortoise,” he said.

“Our family told the story all the time.”

Archie Gates passed away late last month. He was 89.

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