Saving Species One at a Time #3 Bellinger River Turtle
These short necked medium-sized freshwater turtles, are endemic to Australia and live in a very limited area of the Bellinger River and possibly a portion of the nearby Kalang River in New South Wales (NSW), Australia.
In early 2015, a virus – yet to be identified - decimated 90% of the Bellinger River Turtle population. The already small population of about 1200-400 turtles suffered a huge decline. Turtles were found dead or severely sick, displaying clinical signs such as emaciation, immunosuppression, periocular ulcers, lethargy, ataxia and blindness. It is believed that the pathogen causes 100% mortality.
Photo: Bellingen Courier
It was then obvious that the next step was to intervene.
In November 2016, a meeting was arranged between experts from eight different organizations at the Taronga Zoo to discuss conservation measures to be taken in order to save the Bellinger River Turtles from extinction. This meeting resulted in the establishment of immediate priorities for action:
Disease hazard investigation
Murray River Turtle investigation (Investigate competition and hybridization with Bellinger River Snapping Turtles)
Build the captive breeding program
Engage and mobilize the community
Develop and implement a communications plan
Prepare for experimental releases (surveys, monitoring, translocation)
Plan for long-term hazard mitigation
As part of building a captive breeding program, 16 of the surviving turtles were relocated to Taronga Zoo. They adapted surprinsingly well to their new environment, with 4/5 females producing eggs during breeding season. In January and February 2017, the Bellinger River Turtle population saw a significant increase after the hatching of 21 turtles. With about 200 individuals estimated to be left in the wild, these hatchling play a vital role in rebuilding the population.
The Bellinger River Turtle hatchlings born in 2017. Photos: Taronga Zoo
A second group of juveniles has been relocated to the Taronga Zoo in order to form a second captive breeding population. The Bellinger River Turtle reaches maturity between 7-12 years, which means that the recovery of this species will certainly take more than a decade. The breeding program long-term goal is to reintroduce individuals back into their habitat, once the infectious disease is under control.
A team of experts, lead by Dr Karrie Rose (Australian Registry of Wildlife Health at Taronga Zoo), are currently conducting a disease hazard investigation, studying the pathogen and assessing the effects on the wild populations, to better understand the process of the disease and to find a way to control it.
Other portential threats to the Bellinger River Turtle include habitat destruction, predation, water quality, climate change and hybridization and competition with Murray River Turtles (Emydura macquarii).
The IUCN Red List status of the Bellinger River Turtle has not been updated since the mortalitity event, but this species is considered Critically Endangered under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act and the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
Photo by Katie Howard
Conservation Program Workshop: http://www.cpsg.org/sites/cbsg.org/files/documents/Workshop_Summary_Bellinger_River_Snapping_Turtles.pdf
Taronga Zoo: https://taronga.org.au/media/media-release/2017-03-06/huge-hope-for-tiny-turtles