The 1 Million Turtles Project will create the blueprint for “headstarting” as an inexpensive landscape-scale approach to conservation. Headstarting involves removing eggs from the wild to incubate and hatch baby turtles in a secure and safe environment, away from predators such as foxes. Once they are old enough to fend for themselves they are then returned to their natural environment. The innovation of this approach is that it is a successful and inexpensive way to manage these declining species BEFORE they become critically endangered.
This project was funded through generous donations from FNPW supporters across Australia and beyond.
Saving Murray River turtles from extinction – this project unites a world- class research team with diverse industry partners, indigenous groups, and non-government organisations from three states to address a problem of national significance.
FNPW is contributing to funding the largest river study of turtles in Australia. Saving the Murray River turtles is a complex challenge, with feral predators, climate change and salinity changes in a fragile ecosystem posing a real threat to turtle survival.
This is the first river-wide study of turtles, achieved by combining cutting-edge genetic and ecological techniques with a citizen science program.
Headed by Zoologist Dr Ricky Spencer and the University of Western Sydney, this ongoing project aims to assess turtle numbers and develop a comprehensive management plan to ensure these three species not only survive, but thrive. Now at the halfway point, funding is vital to the success of the turtle project.
Dr Spencer says this study is crucial at a time when action must be taken to protect these turtles from unrecoverable decline.
“Turtles are of major importance in river ecosystems and they are declining at an alarming rate in the Murray-Darling. Decline or loss of abundant scavengers, such as turtles, will have serious effects on the ecosystem, further impacting water quality, biological diversity and general river health. Our current research will make sure we have the right plans in place to manage these impacts and save these ancient creatures” he said.
This unique study uses genetic analysis, ecological techniques, local indigenous knowledge and a citizen science project to obtain the most comprehensive data possible. Freshwater turtles are the second largest vertebrates in the Murray River and are critical to the delicate balance of this stressed ecosystem. Turtles eat vast amounts of algae and water plants and scavenge on dead fish, maintaining a healthy aquatic environment for the many other birds, fish, animals and plants that rely on the Murray for their survival.
Evidence of problems with turtle health or population profile points to wider issues that may be affecting many other species of flora and fauna, and interrupting the delicate ecological balance between all the components of the River Murray system. Protecting turtle nesting sites and controlling foxes to reduce predation is critical to give the turtles a chance to build up a strong population again.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF COUNTRY
FNPW supports projects across Australia. In the spirit of reconciliation we acknowledge the Traditional Owners of Country and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture.
PROGRESS OF THIS PROJECT
This project is ongoing.
Protection of Murray River turtles was first funded by FNPW in 2012.
Latest news on this project.
Baby Turtles Released As Part Of Murray Tracking Program
In November 2018 a small group of residents from the Riverglades community in SA assisted Claudia Sontori, a PhD student from the University of Western Sydney, to collect turtle eggs from six different mother turtles. They successfully collected over 150 eggs which were then carefully transported to Sydney for incubation and then brought back to SA to be hatched in January 2019. After the turtles had hatched, a disparate band of approximately 20 residents, along with media representatives from the ABC and Murray Valley Standard, were on hand to take part in the release of approximately 100 Murray River Short neck turtle hatchlings.
As part of Claudia’s research (picture below with Riverglades residents) some of the hatchlings were fitted with transmitters that enable the turtles to be tracked for approximately 2-3 weeks until the batteries in the tracking devices die. Preliminary findings show that the baby turtles are keen swimmers having swum much further than anticipated (one end of the swamp to the other) in just one day. We’re guessing there must be a suitable area for the hatchlings for the majority of them to have all gone to the same area.
Talking to some of the residents of the Riverglades area, they were concerned that there didn’t seem to be as many nests in the area over this last breeding season compared to the 2017/18 summer where there had been approx. 100 nests within the Riverglades wetlands. There is some debate regarding what might have caused this. Did the weather have something to do with it? the deaths of mother turtles or some other reason?
Turtles prefer to lay their eggs during or shortly after a good rain and 2018 did not bring well-timed rain that would suit the nesting turtles. Additionally, even though Riverglades can be considered a built-up residential area there are still foxes present that attack the turtles or their nests. One resident found a turtle nest that had been partially attacked. She covered it, hoping to protect the remaining eggs which were still in the nest.
Latest news on this project.
Helping Murray River Turtles Fight Back
The Murray River Turtle population decline is due to a number of contributing factors such as car accidents and loss of food sources. However, the biggest threat to this species are predators which mainly consist of foxes. In some areas foxes are destroying between 90% -100% of the turtle eggs each year. What this means is, essentially, there are no new generations of turtles to continue the population. Despite previous attempts to eradicate foxes in those areas, the problem continues as any remaining foxes can do most of the damage.
According to Dr Spencer, the problem is spreading up the Murray river and it is only getting worse. “Every few years we survey 50-100 sites throughout the Murray river to check on the turtle population and track the numbers. We have worked out that some areas are not finding any turtles in an area where they should be or have been previously. In South Australia, we are seeing locally extinct populations and we are starting to see it further up the river into NSW and VIC. Something needs to be done now. Unfortunately, in Australia we usually have to wait for animals to become endangered before any action is taken and by then it is too late.”
Over the past four years, FNPW has been working with Dr Spencer on the Murray River Turtle Project to identify the scale of the problem and the steps that need to be taken to reduce it. The dedicated team hopes to raise enough funds to implement a variety of projects to increase the population of the species. These include:
- Artificial islands – these islands (created by modular water purifying floating devices) will create a protected habitat for nesting turtles, safe from predators such as foxes. These islands can be used to protect other species also.
- Breeding grounds – utilising areas like key wetlands that can become refuges and nurseries for the turtles and aid in repopulating the species in the wild
- Schools – creating school programs to help breed turtles
- Fox managements techniques – including fences, fox boxes and traps.
“The Murray River Turtles are an iconic Australian animal and we are working to get these projects off the ground. We need to solve the issue before they really become endangered. Once we receive the funding the projects will be implemented straight away and we should see a result once nesting begins in November. We are looking to release thousands of extra baby turtles into these populations, once the fox population has been removed, and hopefully not only see the emerging baby population survive, but thrive” says Ian Darbyshire, CEO of FNPW.