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Combined efforts to save 'ancient' Manning River turtle continue after surviving drought, bushfire

ABC Health logo ABC Health 4/04/2020 By Emma Siossian
a turtle swimming under water: Bob, a Manning River turtle is rescued during dry conditions. (ABC News: Kerrin Thomas) © Provided by ABC Health Bob, a Manning River turtle is rescued during dry conditions. (ABC News: Kerrin Thomas)

Work is continuing to ensure the survival of the endangered Manning River turtle — a species that dates back about 80 million years.

Described as a "living fossil", the species is found only in the middle and upper reaches of the Manning River catchment, on the New South Wales Mid North Coast.

Threats to its survival increased due to the impact of the drought and bushfires late last year, which restricted turtles to smaller pools, with reduced resources and greater exposure to predators.

The species is the focus of a coordinated effort by the NSW Government, conservation groups and volunteers to ensure it does not become extinct.

A captive Manning River turtle insurance population has been established by Aussie Ark and recently a number of baby turtles successfully hatched.

A senior officer at Hunter Local Land Services, Reegan Walker, said a variety of other work was also being done.

"It's just amazing … we know the turtle has been around for up to 80 million years, that's the time when the dinosaurs were around, and it's thought to be the ancestor to all other freshwater turtles in Australia," he said.

"So it's an important species and we need to protect it into the future."

Cameras track wildlife movements, threats

Mr Walker said Land Services is taking a broad approach, surveying the Manning catchment to determine turtle hotspots, working with landholders to improve habitat, monitoring wildlife and controlling pests.

In the wake of the bushfires, which affected parts of the catchment, Land Services has run a camera-monitoring program to see what wildlife frequents the area, with a focus on known turtle habitat.

"We've recently installed some motion cameras around the Bobin area, north-west of Wingham," Mr Walker said.

"The cameras brought back images of different pests; we saw some wild dogs, we saw foxes and a spotted-tail quoll in those images."

Mr Walker said foxes posed a significant threat to the turtles.

"We know that foxes dig up the turtle nests," he said.

"And we have seen with a similar species up on the tablelands, the Bell's turtle, upwards of 90 per cent of their nests [are] being taken by foxes, so we know it's a major issue.

"So we know foxes and wild dogs are in that catchment and probably getting into the turtle nests."

The organisation said other fauna under pressure from pests in the fire-affected area included the threatened brush-tailed rock wallaby, koala, Hastings River mouse and the rufous scrub-bird.

Pest control program underway

Land Services is now running a pest control program in parts of the Manning region, targeting foxes and known active populations of wild dogs.

"As part of fire recovery efforts in the Manning Great Lakes, we are planning a coordinated ground and aerial program in the district," said Land Services' biosecurity team leader, Luke Booth.

"It is important to give surviving wildlife the best opportunity to recover and the current conditions make it the ideal time to remove pests such as foxes."

The organisation says it is using different techniques and programs, not just baiting, and is not targeting dingoes.

However Kylie Cairns, a research scientist at the University of New South Wales, is concerned that native dingoes will be affected.

"We've been doing DNA testing on the Mid North Coast and we have identified that most wild dogs in the area are actually dingoes, or dingoes with a little bit of dog ancestry," she said.

"The testing has identified that there are hotspots of pure or high-dingo-ancestry dingoes and there are calls for these populations to be protected.

"Dingoes are the apex predator and play a role in reducing the impacts of foxes, cats and other introduced animals.

"Killing the dingo population in the area may have unintended consequences for the turtles and make them more vulnerable to predation."

Conservation group voices concern

Kerrie Guppy, of the Manning River Turtle Conservation Group, says she welcomes work to help the turtle but has concerns about some pest control programs.

"I've been involved in conservation and land management for 15 years now," she said.

"What we discovered when we looked into 1080 baiting further, is that there is off-target risk, and we decided that was too high.

"So there is concern about that among people in the conservation industry and also among community members."

Mr Walker says Land Services is aware of the importance of protecting pure dingoes.

"The images that were captured during the camera monitoring clearly showed wild dogs in the area [that] we are targeting," he said.

"In other areas in the Mid North Coast region, including the Myall Lakes, research has shown there are dingo populations with pure ancestry and it's known those populations are important in maintaining an ecological balance."

Landholders work to improve turtle homes

Land Services also has incentive funding available to landholders in the mid-upper reaches of the Manning River to do works on their property to improve turtle habitat.

"We are engaging directly with landholders to do work, including fencing-off some areas to livestock so habitat can regenerate, weeds can be removed and we can improve areas where turtles nest," Mr Walker said.

"The turtles' nests might get trampled by livestock, or weeds might grow on the sandy banks where they like to build their nests."

Ms Guppy says work to improve turtle nesting areas is a great initiative.

"We have whole ecosystems potentially collapsing after the fires and the water quality went down as well," she said.

"So there's a whole range of issues really putting a lot of pressure on the turtles and anything that helps them goes a long way."

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