JULY 2 2020 A Murray Short-Necked Turtle hatchling. Picture: Ricky Spencer The essential role turtles and tortoises play in the world's ecosystems can not be underestimated, according to an international study co-authored by Western Sydney University associate professor Ricky Spencer. The study, published in Current Biology, found that half of the 360 turtle and tortiose species worldwide faced imminent extinction, but action could be taken to reverse the decline and save many species. The study team of 51 experts with the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, are calling for the end of the trade of wild turtles for food and pets as a key global conservation strategy. Mr Spencer, from WSU's School of Science, said Australia was not immune to the impacts of turtle trading. He said that this, along with attacks from invasive predators, road mortality, habitat destruction and drought, were all factors leading to the decline of Australia's most common turtle species by up to 91 per cent. "In Australia, we are seeing no signs of turtles in some areas, where we previously recorded them in huge numbers," Mr Spencer said. "Foxes are the main persistent source of predation, with growing urbanisation, poor water quality and habitation destruction compounding the issues turtles face," explained Associate Professor Spencer. "The exotic pet trade and illegal smuggling of wildlife both in and out of Australia is also a contributing factor. It is big business." According to the study, hundreds of thousands of turtles and tortoises are collected for the wildlife trade every year. Among the issues, is the fact that as long-living and slow-growing species, wild populations can't replenish fast enough. The researchers say that three species of turtles and tortoises have gone extinct in the last two centuries and more will follow if the trade isn't stopped. The Experimental Wetland Facility at the WSU Hawkesbury campus. Picture: Ricky Spencer The study stresses the important role turtles play in ecosystems; providing energy flow, nutrient recycling, scavenging, soil dynamics and seed dispersal in every system in which they are found. "The research we are conducting at the Experimental Wetland Facility on the University's Hawkesbury campus shows that without turtles in our rivers, water quality would reach toxic levels during our hot summers," Mr Spencer said. "During the recent fish kills in the Murray-Darling River system, turtles were likely instrumental in cleaning up the river." The experts have recommended captive breeding programs take place to help certain species, as well as the preservation of natural habitats. Mr Spencer said he believes community education plays a part in bolstering turtle numbers and should be implemented alongside conservation programs. "We can't wait for turtles to be listed as endangered to act, and that is where community conservation efforts come in," he said. "It is not commonly known, but most turtles under threat are species found in backyards and reserves, so there is an opportunity for people to get involved with local organisations and help reverse the decline."