Rain helps save endangered Manning River turtle, but experts say many threats remain

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ABC Mid North Coast
By Emma Siossian and Kerrin Thomas
Posted 9 Feb 2020
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PHOTO: The endangered Manning River helmeted turtle faces threats from ash run-off, foxes, and disease. (Supplied: Tim Faulkner)


Recent rainfall in northern New South Wales has eased a "very dire" situation for the endangered Manning River helmeted turtle, reducing the risk of the reptiles dying in rapidly shrinking river pools.

Wildlife experts, however, are concerned many threats remain, including the risk of large amounts of sediment and ash from local firegrounds being washed into rivers.

The Manning River helmeted turtle, which lives only in the Manning River catchment on the NSW Mid North Coast, has been described as a "living fossil" and was declared endangered in 2017.

National Parks and Wildlife Service project officer Andrew Steed said the Manning River turtle was at risk from habitat loss, predation by foxes, and disease.

"This is an ancient Australian turtle, estimated to be more than 55 million years old and the ancestor of all Australian turtles," he said.

"It represents a unique and special turtle in Australian reptile fauna and we think it's very important to keep this species alive."

Turtles rescued from rapidly drying waterholes
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PHOTO: Manning River turtles were moved from shrinking waterholes to deeper pools, to save them from dehydrating as rivers started to dry up. (Supplied: Department of Planning, Industry and Environment)

Over the past year, the drought has added to threats facing the Manning River turtle.

Mr Steed said urgent action was recently taken by teams of wildlife experts to move some of the turtles from rapidly shrinking waterholes in the Barnard River.

"These turtles are unable to survive without water, they only leave the river to lay their eggs very close to the river. The rest of the time they spend in the water," he said.

"The extended drought caused the rivers in the Manning Valley to stop flowing over Christmas and early January.

"The pools were getting to a very desperate stage where they were pretty much just full of mud, and it was clear without some intervention turtles were going to die from dehydration.

"We luckily found a big, deep pool further downstream and we were able to relocate about 30 Manning River turtles to the deeper pool."

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PHOTO: The endangered turtles have been under increasing pressure during the drought and some were recently rescued from rapidly shrinking waterholes. (Supplied: Department of Planning, Industry and Environment)

Rain saves a 'dire situation' but threats remain
Fortunately, recent rainfall across the Mid North Coast in New South Wales has eased the risk of Manning River turtles dying due to their habitat drying out.

"It's a great saviour for many turtles that were at risk," Mr Steed said.

"We think we have just been saved from a very dire situation by some very timely rainfall."
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PHOTO: Manning River helmeted turtles rarely leave their river environment and are preyed upon by foxes. (Supplied: Darren Fielder)

While the rain was good news, Mr Steed said it also brought some complications.

"It's not the end of the story; the rain may only be short-lived. We really need good rain right across the whole catchment," he said.

"It is a problem that the rain is causing very turbid water to go down the waterways and filling deeper pools with sediment, so we aren't out of the woods by any means.

"Of concern is up in the north where fires hit very hard in November and December.

"We are a bit worried about ash getting washed into those rivers and causing a problem for fish and eels and turtles.

"Especially around Bobin, to the north of Wingham, and further west of Taree in some remote areas, which are very important turtle habitat areas."

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PHOTO: The Manning River helmeted turtle has been surveyed in many locations in the Manning River. (Supplied: Office of Environment and Heritage )

There was a major fish kill in the Macleay River on the Mid North Coast earlier this year after ash washed into that waterway.

The director of animal conservation organisation Aussie Ark, Tim Faulkner, said the Manning River turtle was also continuing to face a number of ongoing threats.

"Even before this drought and these fires, three years ago this turtle was declared endangered," he said.

"There is almost 100 per cent mortality of eggs by fox, and the foxes don't just eat the eggs — they kill the females while they are laying the eggs.

"There are fewer than a thousand turtles left, foxes were already pushing them to within an inch of their life.

"Plus the erosion of riparian zones, human impacts, water coming out of the rivers, toxins going in, they are up against it."

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PHOTO: Foxes pose a huge threat to the Manning River turtle, and other Australian freshwater turtles. (Supplied: Office of Environment and Heritage)

'Insurance' turtle population
Mr Faulkner said Aussie Ark had begun establishing a world-first 'insurance population' for the Manning River turtle.

He said three turtles rescued from the waterholes had been taken into care for conservation and breeding.

"The three collected turtles are the first founders of the insurance population. We found them while on our hands and knees in muddy waterholes," Mr Faulkner said.

"By March this year, 12 turtles will be collected from across its range, for genetic reasons, to complete the insurance population."
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PHOTO: Aussie Ark is establishing an insurance population of Manning River Turtles, and will collect more in coming weeks. (Supplied: Department of Planning, Industry and Environment)

Mr Steed said the insurance population would also safeguard against the threat of a disease wiping out the entire species.

"It's an insurance against the potential risk of a catastrophic disease, like that which hit the closely related Bellinger River turtle," he said.
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PHOTO: A breeding program is providing hope for the Bellinger River snapping turtle. (Supplied: Taronga Zoo, Paul Fahy)

Kerrie Guppy, from the Manning River Turtle Conservation Group, said a range of work was also being done locally to ensure the Manning River turtle's conservation.

"MidCoast Council ecologists have been extremely active, especially since the fires went through, as fires can impact water quality," she said.

"Fifty-five million years is a long time for a species, and we don't want to be the ones, where on our watch, the turtles disappear."
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PHOTO: Members of the Manning River Turtle Conservation Group with Aussie Ark representatives who visited the region recently to discuss plans for the turtle "insurance population". (Supplied: Julia Driscoll)
 
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