Pig-nosed turtle under threat from hunting

By Jessica Campion 19 July 2011
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The weird-looking pig-nosed turtle is under threat from traditional hunting in New Guinea.

WITH A SNOUT LIKE A pig and movable digits like a tortoise, the pig-nosed turtle is thought to be an evolutionary transition species between freshwater and saltwater species – and now scientists have determined that it’s under serious threat.

The reptile (Carettochelys insculpta), which has no close living relatives, is the only surviving species of the once widespread carettochelyidae turtle family. It is found only in northern Australia and southern New Guinea, where demand for its meat and eggs – a traditional food – maybe driving the species into extinction

Scientists at the University of Canberra found the pig-nosed turtle population has halved in the Kikori region of Papua New Guinea since the 1980s, and the findings have prompted an upgrade of the turtle’s conservation status from vulnerable to endangered.

“Unfortunately, the decline was expected, although we did not know the situation was so critical,” says lead researcher, doctoral student Carla Eisemberg.

On the brink

The study focused only on the Kikori region, but the turtle’s population decline is believed to be widespread as the turtle is a major food source throughout Papua New Guinea. Researchers predict the species could be wiped out if harvesting continues at the current rate.

Factors contributing to the decline of the unusual turtle, include an ever-increasing population, use of more effective modern fishing gear, and the change in local economic practice from subsistence to cash trade. The team investigated the impact of meat harvesting on the turtle population and surveyed the amount of turtle meat and eggs sold in the markets and consumed in the villages.

The research also indicated the turtles have a lower life expectancy and have become smaller in average size over the last thirty years – which the scientists attribute to the over-harvesting of bigger individuals. While the scientists conclude that a conservation plan should be implemented, they also recognise the important protein source the turtle is for the local people’s diet.

“For locals, the turtle population is a fishery; for us it’s a conservation icon – but we all want it conserved so we’re on the same page,” says Professor Arthur Georges, dean of science at the University of Canberra. “Indigenous people have a right to make a living. We’ve just got to work out how to make it work for locals and conservationists.”

A pig-nosed turtle hatchling. (Credit:Ricardo França Silva)

Innovative conservation

As part of the research, Carla and the team produced a story book to educate children about the turtle’s conservation. They distributed the books to local schools and turned it into a radio broadcast play.

Professor Rick Shine, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Sydney, who was not involved with the research, says eco-tourism could provide another avenue for successful conservation of the pig-nosed turtle.

“Win-win solutions need to be found to make it more attractive to locals not to harvest the turtle,” Rick says. “Making the turtle an attraction is one way to make locals see it is worth more to have that animal roaming around.” Rick says creative ways of helping people see addition value in native species – and employing sustainable harvesting – have been found in Australia’s Top End.

 “In the Northern Territory, saltwater crocodiles are popular with tourists, and proposals to fund [the crocs’] conservation by limited trophy hunting – with funds going to local communities – are constantly put up by the Northern Territory government,” he says. “In Kakadu, scientists and local Aboriginal communities are collaborating to ensure sustainable harvests of sea turtles and the long-necked turtles.”