Colin ‘Col’ Limpus, Australia’s foremost turtle biologist, initiated his research on green and loggerhead turtles in Queensland in the 1970s. He was mentored by Robert Bustard, and they worked together extensively on flatback sea turtles. Limpus carried on Bustard’s work in Queensland and his multi-decade monitoring of sea turtles in that region is considered to be one of the finest long-term research programmes on sea turtles anywhere.
In 1994, Col was appointed by the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) to the position of COP-appointed Councillor for Marine Turtles and served in this voluntary capacity for more than twenty-five years. He has been the driving force for the development of the CMS Single Species Action Plan for loggerhead turtles in the South Pacific Ocean. In June 2020, he was awarded the title of ‘Officer of the Order of Australia’ for his “distinguished service to environmental science, particularly to the conservation of sea turtles, and as a mentor of young scientists”.
KS: Col, I’m writing a book on the history of sea turtles in India. While tracing the history, I’m also doing these little sections on some of the individuals, some of the characters, who were involved in both sea turtle biology and conservation. I have a good academic record of when Bustard came to India, what he found, what he wrote about, and what he saw. But I’ve just heard fragments of stories about him and I thought it might be nice to get an idea of who he was, where he’d come from and what he’d done, some of that background.
CL: He came to Australia on a Queen’s fellowship – that’s a fairly prestigious fellowship– that was awarded to British scientists to go and study somewhere else in the Commonwealth. He was from Edinburgh. It was essentially a post-doctoral type of appointment.
KS: Which year would this have been?
CL: Oh, it was the early 1960s. He came to the University of Canberra. He was a herpetologist and his primary interest was geckos. He set up study sites to study the whole range of reptile ecology, focusing on geckos. He had mark-recapture programmes running and a whole mass of long-term studies New South Wales and elsewhere. Most of his papers in Australia are gecko related. He wrote a book on lizards while he was here.
In 1964, I think he must have been on Heron Island up in the Barrier Reef on some sort of University trip or holiday, he saw the turtles and with his academic bent of mind, decided that he would initiate a study on them. So, he started a tagging programme. For a whole nesting season, the entire nesting population of the green and loggerhead turtles at Heron Island were tagged. But his primary interest was green turtles. I think he started his tagging programme in 1964 and 1972 was his last tagging season. He was he only person in Australia doing anything with sea turtles in those days. I met him in January of 1968. I was studying undergraduate biology then and I was on a student trip to Heron Island. But I’d grown up with sea turtles on the beaches where I lived. I was a high school teacher at the time, changing over from being a physicist, and was using turtle information in my teaching.
So I’m sitting in the dark on Heron Island watching green turtles nesting, and this fellow comes in the darkness, reads the tag number and measures the turtle, writes some notes, and as he goes to walk away– he hadn’t seen me, I was sitting underneath a tree watching him in the darkness – I just said to him, “Do you ever get flatbacks over here?” And he turned and said, “What do you know about flatbacks?” And as we talked, he took me under his wing and sort of included me in the discussions over the following days while I was there. And because he had never seen flatback turtles, I invited him to come back to Bundaberg with me and took him to the beach and he saw a nesting flatback, and hatchlings as well.
He recognized a conservation problem that was the result of the way that the local government wanted to manage the beach. He also persuaded me to take on a four-year study of the nesting flatbacks. He gave me tags, basically talked a little bit about methodology, and left me to do whatever I wanted to do. He never tried to take the data, he encouraged me to publish, and basically was a mentor. In that sense, I owe him a debt of gratitude.
I started my work in 1968. In 1969, there was the first IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group meeting in Switzerland and that’s when he corresponded with Archie (Carr), (Tom) Harrisson, and (John) Hendrickson. He took on a sort of significant attitude towards international conservation and so he started looking beyond his work at Heron. That’s when he started promoting the idea of turtle farms. I don’t know where he got the initial funding, but he got a very large grant to fund the development of farming of native wildlife in the context of developing an industry for indigenous communities. So he started turtle farms, emu farms, oyster farms…he talked about python farms, parrot farms, and crocodile farms, these sorts of things.
KS: Could it have been the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization]? Because that’s how he came to India.
CL: He developed the idea and got the funding, and around 1971, he actually initiated a series of turtle farms in Torres Strait. At its peak, there were something like 30 to 32 separate farms that were rearing turtles in Torres Strait. He had one farm in Western Australia, a crocodile farm at Edward River community on the western Torres Strait, and the emu farms were in Western Australia. There were a number of these, and they were linked to a developing industry for indigenous communities. He was running on a budget of about one and a half million dollars a year in the early 1970s, which was a huge budget at the time.
KS: When I was in Australia several years ago, on the side of a street I picked up a couple of his books. I think one’s called ‘Australian Sea Turtles’ and then there’s ‘Kay’s Turtles’.
CL: ‘Australian Sea Turtles’– it came out in two titles: when it was published in Australia it was ‘Australian Sea Turtles’ and when it was dust covered in England, it was ‘Sea turtles: Their Natural History and Biology’. It’s a very reasonable presentation of his experiences with sea turtles in Australia.
KS: On the jacket on one of the books, it says that he took a break from sea turtles to work more closely with aboriginal communities…
CL: That’s what happened when he started the turtle farms. He shifted his primary concern from Heron Island to Torres Strait and the running of these turtle farms, and later began working with the croc farms, the emu farms, and the aboriginal communities.
The farms that he started were eventually taken over by a quasi-government agency. Bob had called his unit ‘Applied Ecology’ and this new one was called ‘Applied Ecology Propriety Limited’, and it was separate from the University. The farms lasted for about another six years before the government pulled the plug on them. The only farms that actually survived were the crocodile and the emu farms. But the turtle farms were just a huge drain on the funds. Had they been set up somewhere else where there was better logistic support, they may have worked. But because of where they set them up, the sheer logistics and cost associated with it was too much. There were also health issues for the turtles; since you had large numbers you needed veterinary care, and there wasn’t a single veterinarian available in Torres Strait, and those sorts of issues.
So, that’s where he steps away from Australia, in 1973, and then turns up in India in 1974 where he starts off with crocodiles.
KS: That’s interesting, because it seems like he stumbled upon turtles in Australia and he stumbled upon turtles again in India.
CL: Yeah, he stumbled on turtles in India with the ridleys. As an outsider, what I saw as a legacy for him was he took a group of young graduates and he mentored them, and after he left the country they continued. He created a group of people that seemed to be able to support themselves in a direction and grow.
KS: Yeah, he left his mark, that’s for sure. And you then went on to do your PhD.
CL: By the time I was finishing my Master’s work on toxicology, I decided I’d rather be a biologist and applied for a biologist appointment with the Queensland Park Service.
KS: Was that on sea turtles?
CL: No. When I started that, it was with corals, but I was already working on turtles. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that I decided I’d do a PhD and then I chose to do that on sea turtles.
KS: Who was your supervisor?
CL: Japanese guy, Jiro Kikkawa, who was an ornithologist. In the latter part of his career, he totaled thirty years of tagging of silvereyes, which is a small passerine, on the islands of the southern Barrier Reef. He had the lineages of who the parents were for each bird, who they mated with, where their nest was, elevation, breeding success, etc. It was one of these magnificent ornithological studies and because he was working on Heron Island, he was very conscious of sea turtles. So, he said he’d supervise me for my PhD.
KS: And the rest is history. Thank you so much Col, it was great talking to you.