THE western swamp tortoise could be taken off the critically endangered list in as little as five years after 30 years of trying to get the species back from the brink of extinction.
The species, which has protected habitats in Bullsbrook and Upper Swan, only had 30 surviving tortoises left in the wild in 1989 but thanks to a breeding program at the Perth Zoo, the Department of Parks and Wildlife and dedicated volunteers from Friends of the Western Swamp Tortoise, the 500th juvenile was successfully released into the wild last year.
Friends of the Western Swamp Tortoise chairwoman Jan Bant said the program had also reached a milestone, with its first lot of hatchlings born naturally at the reserve last year and not from the Perth Zoo breeding program.
She said once the juvenile tortoises reached maturity in the next five years, they could be counted towards population numbers and the species could be down- listed from critically endangered to endangered.
“We have released a lot of tortoises into the reserve, but the problem is we are only releasing juveniles and it takes up to 15 years for them to mature and breed, so we haven’t reached the stage where we have enough breeding adults to get off the critically endangered list,” she said.
“We’ve also had two hatchlings that haven’t come from the zoo and it’s the first time we have seen this. It’s excellent to know recruitment is taking place and the program is successful and the habitat is helping them thrive and encourage breeding.”
The species are found in two reserves – the Ellen Brook and Twin Swamps – which are both monitored by the Department of Parks and Wildlife.
She said the program had very few fatalities, but was concerned as high-density development continued to happen in the area more pressure would be placed on the species.
“Twin Swamps is safe, but if there are any tortoises outside of the reserve they will not survive,” she said.
“With the development of Ellenbrook and neighbouring subdivisions, the tortoises in the Ellen Brook reserve will be at risk from growing pollution and issues resulting from increased development, so it’s important to find more habitats for the tortoise as this happens.”
The Department of Parks and Wildlife is holding a trial study this year to see if the western swamp tortoise can survive in habitat in Augusta in the state’s South-West.
Ms Bant said climate change was a serious threat to the species.
“The future looks bright, not only because they are thriving in the habitat but also because scientists are working to combat the impact of climate change on the species by finding other habitat,” she said.
“I feel confident that we are seeing an increase in numbers and we are working on many different levels to ensure that this species will continue to grow.”