It took only one man, collecting and trading penny turtles to nearly wipe out a bum breathing turtle.
Every year between 1962 and 1974 this one man collected 15,000 eggs of the Mary River Turtle and sold them into the pet trade.
Thankfully turtle biologists who saw them in pet shops could see they were a unique species. But those turtle traders refused to reveal where they were getting the turtles from and so scientists were unable to formally describe them until 25 years later when they were discovered on property in the Mary River.
Four adult turtles were collected and the Mary River Turtle was formally described as a new species within a new genus. No other turtle in the world is closely related to it.
But that sheer volume of eggs collected for the wildlife trade resulted in an entire generation of turtles being removed from the wild, leaving a reduced and aging population. The turtle is now listed as an endangered species internationally and by both the Queensland and Australian Governments.
But Wildlife Queensland, in partnership with a Landcare Group on the Mary River have a plan to give this turtle a much-needed boost. Now the biggest threat to the small number of turtles in existence is predation by foxes, dogs and goannas and the trampling of their nests by cattle.
Wildlife Queensland and Tiaro Landcare Group will protect all nests of this unique bum breathing turtle. They’ll identify the nests, place guards, install electric fencing and monitor around flood time so that eggs can be moved to safety.
Marilyn Connell is the Coordinator at Tiaro Landcare and she’s been working on the turtle’s recovery for more than 20 years.
“The Mary River Turtle is faithful to traditional nest sites,” Marilyn said. “And the same females go back to those same spots each year. Their location is a strongly guarded secret.”
“Each female turtle lays one clutch of 12 to 25 eggs. They begin laying in mid October and continue throughout November and December. Natural incubation periods are around 50 days and hatchlings emerge throughout December and until February,” she said. “This is when we do most of our monitoring.”
This dedication and absolute commitment to the Mary River Turtle by local volunteers is the reason why many clutches of eggs have successfully hatched that would otherwise have been lost. But of course, there is only so much a small volunteer team can achieve and with limited resources, only so many turtle hatchlings that they can help survive.
So Wildlife Queensland and Tiaro Landcare Group are working together to raise $30,000 to protect every turtle nest this year. Every $30 raised saves one Mary River Turtle.
“We’re going to expand the program until 1,000 hatchlings are protected every year,” Marilyn said. “But we can’t do this without financial support.”
Dr Col Limpus is a world renowned turtle biologist who’s studied the Mary River Turtle for over 20 years. He’s seen the population of turtles decline, he’s also seen the recovery actions that are successful.
“We know protecting the nest will work and that by implementing these actions we’ll save the Mary River Turtle from extinction,” Dr Limpus said. “Nests that are protected and fenced the morning after eggs are laid result in 80% of protected eggs producing hatchlings”.
You can donate online and help save a species at rainforestconnections.org/projects/MaryRiverTurtle.
You can learn more about Tiaro Landcare and their work to save a species at maryriverturtle.com.