The mystery disease killing Bellinger River turtles

By Elizabeth Arrigo 2 July 2018
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A native turtle decimated by a mystery killer disease is being brought back from the brink of extinction with community help.

THE LOCAL COMMUNITY along the Bellinger River, on the NSW north coast, is proving to be critical in preventing the loss of a highly endangered native turtle species. It was the quick reaction of the same community three years ago that kept the freshwater Bellinger River snapping turtle (pictured above) from local extinction.

Back in 2015, the Coffs Harbour NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) began receiving frantic calls from people living along the river reporting that turtles were turning up dead and dying. Many had lesions on their bodies, inflamed eyes and other unpleasant symptoms. As more and more began appearing, it became clear the reptiles were being struck down by a highly contagious disease.  OEH scientists responded rapidly to relocate any unaffected turtles they could find. These animals were placed into quarantine under the joint management of NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and Department of Primary Industries, Western Sydney University and Taronga Zoo.

Within about two months an estimated 90 per cent of the wild population was dead.

“We’d never seen anything like it,” says Gerry McGilvray, project officer with the OEH. “It was so fast, had such a high fatality rate and caused such distressing symptoms in the turtles that we all had to act quickly.”

The Bellinger River snapping turtle is known to occur naturally only along a 60km stretch of the river after which it is named. The 17 healthy turtles removed from the river after the 2015 event were placed into a captive breeding program run initially by Taronga Zoo and now continuing jointly with Symbio Wildlife Park, south of Sydney.

The program has already proved highly successful, with 21 hatchlings born at Taronga last year. When and how captive-bred hatchlings will be reintroduced to the Bellinger River remains unclear at this stage, because there is more to learn and understand about the disease.

The NSW government’s Saving our Species program has a conservation project in place for this species and  plans to return it into the wild.  “Research into the disease, how it operates and the environmental conditions that may have contributed to the susceptibility of turtles has been at the forefront of the plan to save these turtles,” Gerry explains. “Water- quality monitoring in the Bellinger River catchment has been important and the local community is proving to be essential for that.”

The same community that alerted authorities to the turtle’s plight have now become critical to its long-term future. Bellingen Riverwatch, launched in May last year, involves local community members and schoolchildren who record water-quality data that may help identify any problems occurring in the turtles’ natural environment. It’s one of several citizen science projects underway to help the turtles.

The Australian Geographic Society is also getting behind critical efforts to save this highly endangered turtle by raising funds to support these community projects.

You can donate HERE.