Experts hatch plan to save critically endangered white-throated snapping turtle

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Flaviemys purvisi

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Oct 28, 2017
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ABC Wide Bay
/ By Johanna Marie
Posted Wednesday 19 May May 2021
8e30f5b212eb889308352a7e70ee7e23.jpgThe white-throated snapping turtle is native to the Burnett, Mary and Fitzroy river catchments.
Supplied: Stephen Zozaya and Jason Schaffer

The odds are stacked against Queensland's critically endangered white-throated snapping turtle, but a national recovery plan has been hatched to bring the species back from the brink of extinction.

Under the 10-year plan, developed by the federal and Queensland governments and scientific experts, volunteers are getting their hands dirty doing everything they can to save the Elseya albagula.

The species, native to the Burnett, Mary and Fitzroy River catchments along the central and southern Queensland coasts, is one of the largest chelid turtles in the world, with a shell that can grow to 45 centimetres in length.

But the federal Department of Environment's assistant secretary for protected species, Ilona Stobutzki, says the population is dwindling.

"We don't actually know how many white-throated snapping turtles there are in these rivers … but we do know the population is in trouble," Dr Stobutzki said.

"It's predicted to experience severe declines in the near future."
Two female white-throated snapping turtles recently captured in the Burnett River.
Supplied: WYLD Projects Indigenous Corporation

Key points:​

  • A national recovery plan for the white-throated snapping turtle is underway
  • Turtle nest relocation and protection measures will hopefully save the critically endangered species
  • Concerns over destruction of habitat and water management are driving the rescue efforts

So, on the banks of the Burnett River, volunteers have begun capturing nesting females and relocating their eggs into cages protected by electric fencing.

It's dirty and laborious work, but the stakes are high.

"We've got two nest-protection cages, and specially designed electric fences to keep out predators — goannas, foxes and cattle," said Brad Crosbie from Wyld Projects.

Water rats and wild pigs are also major threats to the species.

Turtle nests are being relocated into cages protected by electric fences along the Burnett River.
ABC Wide Bay: Johanna Marie

Mr Crosbie said nesting occurred from now until June, and relocating eggs gave them a better chance of survival.

"Normally there would be 100 per cent predation," he said.
"We'll go out and find those eggs, relocate them back into the cage and then around Christmas time the [hatchlings] emerge."


A long road ahead​

The bottom-breathing turtle was identified as a separate species in 2006.

The chief scientific officer at the Queensland Department of Environment, Col Limpus, said the freshwater species had been decimated over the years by predators.

"There are very [few] immature turtles in the population and that's because of the decades of excessive loss of eggs and excessive loss of hatchlings," Dr Limpus said.

"We've got a population that is almost all ageing adults.
"If we want to turn that around, we need a whole lot of hatchlings being produced into the river that can grow up and become adults.

"We won't see them join the adult breeding population for at least 15 years, so we're talking about long-term commitments for the conservation of the species.

"If we're unable to correct the problems, that species is heading to extinction."

Destruction of habitat​

Mr Crosbie said the Bundaberg floods in 2011 and 2013 washed away many of the turtle nesting areas.

"Those floods destroyed most of the nesting areas … it took a lot of the good soil off the top of the banks that the turtles like laying in," he said.

"The turtles have got to have access to the banks, and when they don't have access they don't lay."
The recovery plan also listed the construction of multiple dam and weir structures among the threats to the species.


It is understood SunWater, which operates Paradise Dam, is obligated to keep the Burnett River water levels at a certain height to limit the impact to endangered turtles.
"Seventy-two per cent of the flowing Burnett River is contained in dams and weirs," Dr Limpus said.
"It stops their natural movements from where they live to going to breeding areas and courtship areas.
"There's another suite of problems coming from how we manage rivers for water supply, and these are the sorts of things we've been negotiating."
The recovery plan stated it would be deemed a failure if any of six criteria were not reached within 10 years, including improvements to mortality rates, wild hatchings, younger populations, and habitat.

Posted 19 May 2021