Without global action, turtles and tortoises are in trouble

  Last updated June 25, 2020 at 11:13 am


The first global study of turtle and tortoise species has highlighted that half of all species are at risk of extinction, and painted a roadmap to recovery.

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During the recent fish kills in the Murray-Darling River system, turtles were likely instrumental in cleaning up the river. Credit: David Cunningham/Getty Images

Why This Matters: Australia will feel the impacts of declining turtle and tortoise species.

The first global assessment of the world’s turtle and tortoise species has revealed that half of all 360 turtle and tortoise species worldwide face imminent extinction.

While the results may be sobering, the report points out that action undertaken now could reverse the decline and save many species.

Published in Current Biology, 51 experts with the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, are calling for the end of the trade of wild turtles for food and pets as key to a global conservation strategy.

Also: Microplastics found in every turtle tested in international study

Australia is not immune to impacts of turtle and tortoise trade

Hundreds of thousands of turtles and tortoises are collected for the wildlife trade every year. Turtles and tortoises are long-living and slow-growing species, which means they can’t reproduce fast enough to replenish populations that are taken from the wild. Three species of turtles and tortoises have gone extinct in the last two centuries, but that number will climb if the trade isn’t curbed.

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Turtle Island – a pilot project at Glenbrook Lagoon between Blue Mountains Council, Western Sydney University and Blue Mountains volunteers. Credit: Ricky Spencer.

Western Sydney University’s Associate Professor Ricky Spencer, who contributed to the research, says Australia is not immune from turtle trading. Additionally, attacks from invasive predators, road mortality, habitat destruction and drought, are all factors contributing 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. Foxes are the main persistent source of predation, with growing urbanisation, poor water quality and habitation destruction compounding the issues turtles face,” explains  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.”

Turtles play a vital role in ecosystems

The study reinforces the essential roles turtles play in the world’s ecosystems. They provide critical services such as energy flow, nutrient recycling, scavenging, soil dynamics and seed dispersal in the terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems in which they occur.

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. During the recent fish kills in the Murray-Darling River system, turtles were likely instrumental in cleaning up the river,” says Spencer.

Deeper: What killed a million Darling River fish?

The researchers recommend captive breeding and head starting programs as ways to help certain species of turtles and tortoises. But to be effective, there must be natural habitat remaining to release the animals into. Species like the Australian western swamp turtle were rescued from near extinction by captive breeding efforts, but it is difficult to breed some species in captivity.

Spencer also suggests that community education is also important for bolstering turtle numbers, and should go hand in hand with conservation programs.

Programs like the 1 Million Turtles Community Conservation Program and TurtleSAT are implementing a range of conservation strategies, including Turtles in Schools programs, nesting island creation and will launch a National Predation Survey.

“We can’t wait for turtles to be listed as endangered to act, and that is where community conservation efforts come in. 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,” says Spencer.

According to Professor Craig Stanford, the paper’s lead author from the University of Southern California, and Chair of the IUCN SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group: “A long slow life trajectory worked for them for millions of years, but it doesn’t serve them well in the modern world in the face of humans poaching them and destroying their habitat.”

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