By Claire Ottaviano
FEARS for the survival of the endangered Western Swamp Tortoise saw a proposal to amend the special use zone around Twin Swamps and Ellen Brook Nature Reserves rejected at the City of Swan Council meeting this week.
Councillors voted unanimously to not support the local planning scheme amendment due to a pending review of a tortoise habitat protection policy.
Friends of the Western Swamp Tortoise (FWST) chairperson Jan Bant was one of five speakers against the proposal.
Ms Bant said proposed changes to reduce the minimum lot sizes in some areas of the protection zone from 8ha to between 2ha and 8ha would have a detrimental impact on the area.
“I’m here as a representative of the non-profit FWST which has over 400 members and we’re all keen on trying to save this tortoise from extinction,” she said.
“It’s a critically endangered tortoise, there are less than 50 of them in the wild and they’re all in the Ellen Brook Nature Reserve.
“That’s the only place in the world where there are wild tortoises and if we fiddle around with their habitat there is the possibility they will go extinct.
“I don’t hesitate to use that word because they are really on the brink.”
The Western Swamp Tortoise is Australia’s rarest reptile and was considered extinct for 100 years before it was rediscovered in 1953.
In February this year, 95 per cent of the reserve was decimated by the Wooroloo Bushfire (Western Swamp Tortoise relief).
Luckily, the last self-sustaining population of the tortoise was safely burrowed underground.
“It’s burnt to ash,” Ms Bant said.
“The whole area now has no vegetation which means when the tortoise comes out of the swamps, there’s nowhere for it to hide from predators.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work to mediate this but you can’t make trees grow any faster so it’s going to be a long jog.”
Swan Hills MLA Jessica Shaw also spoke against the amendment.
“This is not just about the City of Swan,” she said.
“It is of state significance, it is of national significance, and I would argue of global significance.
“It’s a goldilocks tortoise, it needs a very specific set of circumstance to exist and thrive and those conditions only exist on one place on the planet and that is Twin Swamp reserve and the Ellen Brook reserve and we are asking you to protect it.”
She said any change to the special use zone would jeopardise the reserve and the viability of tortoises that live within them.
The City will now request the Planning Minister not approve the amendment.
Buffer zone keeps residents in limbo
THE Western Swamp Tortoise special use zone has left Upper Swan and Bullsbrook residents stuck in limbo for more than 20 years says fourth generation Swan Valley resident Jackie Elezovich.
The 18-year-old spoke on behalf of properties in support of changes which could enable development opportunities within the Twin Swamps and Ellen Brook Nature Reserves special use zone.
“In the past 28 years, I’m the third generation in my family who has made presentations to the council regarding our property in Upper Swan and its inclusion in the protection buffer zone,” she said.
“My dad and grandparents purchased our Railway Parade property in 1993 as a share farm to grow market garden crops.
“With the enactment of the Western Swamp Tortoise Environmental Protection Policy (EPP) in 1995 the reasonable use of our land was stolen.”
Ms Elezovich said the EPP placed restrictions on land use which included no horses, sheep or cattle and no residential buildings or market gardens.
“The dictionary defines theft as appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving them of it,” she said.
“That is what has happened and continues to happen with properties in the buffer as we lost reasonable use of our property without meaningful consultation, discussion and certainly no form of compensation.”
She said while she believed it was everyone’s responsibility to protect and care for the environment and endangered species, the responsibility and cost was only being worn by the landowners.
“Amendment 132, if enacted, may allow families such as mine to realise some value back from our properties,” she said.
Applicant Stephen Dobson said the amendment had been in the making for two decades.
“It’s important to acknowledge this is a compromise solution for this area,” he said.
“These amendments were not drafted in the last six months, it’s been in process for ten years and it’s been at this council for over six years.
“We’ve consulted with all of the departments, the EPA, DBCA, Department of Water and this is the compromise solution we’ve all come up with that’s the best fit for everyone.”
City statutory planning manager Phil Russell said the council and City were merely an “advisory body” making recommendations to the Planning Minister.
“[Council] is not in a position, I’m afraid, to be able to anticipate or evaluate what the experts at the EPA will decide to do if the current amendment is satisfactory,” he said.
“If it’s not, rest assured, the Environment Minister will chat to the Planning Minister and they will make sure the final form of this amendment is in line with those instruments.”
Council was not satisfied the amendment would be consistent with the protection of the reserves and recommended the Planning Minister reject it.’
Survival of the species
IN an effort to safeguard the wild population of the Western Swamp Tortoise, the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) released 73 tortoises into new habitat in the state’s south west last month.
The tortoises are bred at Perth Zoo which also houses an on-site breeding facility with an ‘insurance population’ of around 150 to 200 Western Swamp Tortoises.
After the tortoises at Perth Zoo mate and lay their eggs, keepers carefully dig the clutches up and place the eggs in incubators to maximise hatching success.
When the tortoises reach 100g in weight, about three years of age, they are released into DBCA managed wild habitats at Twin Swamps, Ellen Brook, Mogumber and Moore River Nature Reserves.
The new trial site east of Augusta in Scott National Park is outside of the tortoise’s historic range where it is cooler and wetter to counteract the effects of a warming climate on the species.
A DBCA spokesperson said the recent release was only one of a number of actions being taken to maintain wild populations.
“Forty-eight tortoises were fitted with radio transmitters and data loggers to help scientists monitor their movements and how they adapt to their new environment,” she said.
“While Ellen Brook and Twin Swamp Nature Reserves continue to provide critical habitat, further work is underway to expand suitable habitat for Western Swamp Tortoises in Moore River National Park and the south west.”
Work includes weed removal, fire management and feral animal control through the Western Shield wildlife conservation program.