Saving the freshwater Bellinger River Snapping Turtle from extinction

There’s a turtle species that exists in just one catchment on the planet and that’s here in Coastbeat country – the Bellinger River to be exact. This freshwater snapping turtle is one of the rarest in the world and was on the brink of extinction until dedicated and passionate environmentalists stepped in to save them.

One of my husband’s most enjoyable office days involved time in the Bellinger River searching for turtles. The environmental body he works with was assisting what is now DPIE (NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment) but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to 2015…

Saving the freshwater Bellinger River Snapping Turtle from extinction
10 juvenile turtles were released back into the river earlier this year. Image by Paul Fahy

Discovering diseased turtles

A few years ago, a couple of Bellingen locals were cruising the nearby waterways by canoe when they happened upon a Bellinger River Snapping Turtle – a short-necked, freshwater species first observed in the river in the early 1970s. The canoeists were able to get surprisingly close to the turtle and soon discovered why; its eyes were grown over with disease. A little further upstream, they discovered another animal in the same condition. Within a short time, they would retrieve some 50 dead and dying turtles from the river.

Devastatingly, these turtles had all been infected by what would become known as Bellinger River Virus (BRV) which causes blindness, internal organ necrosis and the development of sudden inflammatory lesions. In just three months, an estimated 90% of the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle (BRST) succumbed to the deadly disease. A once healthy population of roughly 4,500 had dwindled and the future of the species was looking dire.

Saving the freshwater Bellinger River Snapping Turtle from extinction
Blindness is just one of the effects of Bellinger River Virus. Image by Shane Ruming

Saving our Species / Great Outcomes

Fortunately though, about 20 virus-free turtles were able to be collected from the river (hence my husband’s search efforts) for a captive breeding program at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. This was part of the Saving our Species program; a five-year, $100 million NSW Government program that focusses on securing a future for threatened animal and plant species across the State.

The results of the captive breeding program at Taronga were promising indeed; 22 healthy hatchlings were welcomed in 2017 with another 31 healthy arrivals last year.

Fittingly, on World Turtle Day in May this year, the DPIE announced the release of 10 juvenile turtles back into the Bellinger River. It was a cause for celebration for the many dedicated people who have been involved in the program; from government agencies to scientists, environmentalists, locals living along the river and the Bellingen Riverwatch volunteers who regularly monitor the water quality. 

Minister for Energy and Environment, Matt Kean, for one, is delighted to see the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle making a comeback. “The release of the turtles earlier this year is exciting because it represents a big step forward on the path to securing the future of the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle. This is a species that was almost wiped out, if not for the rapid response from the NSW Government and its partners. Releasing animals bred in captivity at Taronga Zoo represents a significant milestone in the project,” he says.

“It has been exciting to monitor their progress after being raised in captivity for almost two years. Hopefully, more animals will be released into the river if the trial proves successful.”

Saving the freshwater Bellinger River Snapping Turtle from extinction
The release of the hatchlings into the river was a significant milestone. Image by Paul Fahy

Securing threatened plants and animals in the wild is the number one goal for Saving our Species and the Minister acknowledges that with people power and key partnerships, much is possible. “This project in the Bellinger River shows that, with strong community support and partnerships, we can make real positive change to our threatened species.”

Saving this particular creature has been a wonderfully collaborative effort and we’ll be sure to keep you updated on this remarkable freshwater turtle, endemic to our local catchment.

In addition to the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle, the innovative state wide Saving our Species program includes mammals, birds, plants and even another endangered turtle species in Coastbeat territory, the much-loved but little known, Manning River helmeted turtle.

To find out more, search ‘Saving our Species’ at environment.nsw.gov.au