Published: 22 June 2022
Last edited: 08 July 2022
remove_red_eye 707 Views

Summary

In 2015 a mass mortality event struck the highly range restricted Bellinger River Snapping Turtle (Myuchelys georgesi), wiping out 90% of the species in under six weeks. The initial emergency response included site examinations, removal of dead and sick animals, and a water quality investigation. Bellinger River Virus (previously unknown to science) was eventually identified as the causative agent. To better understand the circumstances behind this mass mortality event, a One Health approach was taken addressing how the animals, causative agent, and surrounding environment interacted with each another. A facilitated multi-stakeholder conservation planning workshop was held incorporating the IUCN SSC/OIE’s Wildlife Disease Risk Analysis process (Jakob-Hoff et al, 2014). This ensured all potential contributing factors associated with the Bellinger River Virus outbreak were reflected in immediate and long-term priorities and on-ground recovery actions.

Classifications

Region
Oceania
Scale of implementation
Local
Ecosystem
Freshwater ecosystems
River, stream
Theme
Fisheries and aquaculture
Local actors
Science and research
Species management
Water provision and management
Species Conservation and One Health Interventions
Species Status Assessment
Wildlife Health Surveillance (to capture biodiversity, health, disease, and pathogen surveillance)
Species Monitoring and Research
Species Intensive Management (in situ or ex situ)
Species Conservation Planning
Risk assessment
Outbreak investigation and access to laboratory
One Health coordination mechanism
One Health
Animal health
Challenges
Floods
Loss of Biodiversity
Vector and water borne diseases
Invasive species
Sustainable development goals
SDG 14 – Life below water

Location

Bellingen, New South Wales, Australia

Challenges

The main challenges facing conservation planners following the mortality event were the uncertainty surrounding cause of death and the species’ small population size. Bellinger River Snapping Turtles are endemic to an estimated 80km stretch of the Bellinger River. Prior to 2015, the wild population comprised roughly 4,000 individuals, leaving the species vulnerable to extinction following the sizable mortality event. Additionally, the Bellinger River Virus had a disproportionate impact on the adult turtle population. Due to their reproductive biology, this sharply diminished the species’ ability to repopulate. The cause of death was not known during the initial stages of the emergency response, leading to a broad investigation that eventually identified the previously unknown Bellinger River Virus.

Beneficiaries

  • Bellinger River Turtle 
  • Greater river ecosystem
  • Conservation planners – government and researchers
  • Local communities surrounding the Bellinger River

How do the building blocks interact?

The One Plan Approach is built upon the concept of collaborative partnerships – only through open and honest collaboration can the previously siloed sectors of ex situ and in situ population management effectively come together. The full response, including the site examination, status review, disease risk analysis, captive breeding program, and reintroduction program, was spearheaded by government authorities, but was supported by a diverse body of stakeholders. The partnerships developed were rooted in a shared desire to protect this unique and threatened species and made possible an enduring level of cooperation and information sharing.

Impacts

A multi-agency, comprehensive response to the mass mortality event prevented the small, endemic population of Bellinger River Snapping Turtle from going extinct. A captive breeding program was established early in the response through Taronga Zoo, and over 80 juvenile turtles have since been successfully released back into the river through a coordinated recovery program. Population reinforcement, together with multiple complementary lines of research and on-ground action, have been essential components of the conservation plan developed with facilitation by the IUCN-SSC Conservation Planning Specialist Group (CPSG). The collaborative, multi-stakeholder approach to conservation planning resulted in a consensus-based management plan that included disease mitigation measures, steps to address threats facing the river ecosystem, and ways to engage the local community in on-going monitoring. Although the disease event changed the status of the species to critically endangered, there is now hope that, with ongoing management, the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle will persist in the wild.

Story

Brent Mail/DPE

In 2015, reports of dead and dying turtles washing onto the banks of the Bellinger River sent shock waves through conservation scientists, wildlife managers, veterinarians, and the close-knit Bellingen community. As more and more turtles were reported dead and early attempts to treat sick animals proved ineffective, the scale of the disaster emerged; a mass mortality event with an unknown cause, rapidly wiping out the small, endemic population of the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle. Early investigations ruled out pollution and toxicity as the cause; the emergency rescue quickly adapted to wildlife disease as the most likely driver. Conservation managers and scientists worked quickly with the incident control team and the local community to identify upper reaches of the river they hoped would contain healthy animals. An emergency capture was planned, with the aim of establishing an insurance population. Within weeks of the first reports of sick turtles, the team were urgently retrieving animals. There was intense community scrutiny and expectation; a need to know and be provided with explanations. The Bellinger River is at the heart of the Bellingen community, and the plight of the turtle concerned many. Collecting a healthy insurance population had to balance urgency and uncertainty. Strict biosecurity guidelines were put in place for the capture and transportation of animals outside the catchment, and a quarantine facility was built at Western Sydney University. 17 healthy turtles were recovered from the upper reaches of the river before the disease advanced. These animals now form the basis of a captive breeding population, with over 80 offspring released into the Bellinger River since 2018. Today, the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle program is a well-established conservation recovery program owing its success to the dedication and collaboration of a broad range of people, overseen by an expert reference group with numerous others providing local knowledge and practical expertise. Volunteers assist with biannual surveys and water quality monitoring and >50 private landowners allow access to river habitat. The government team leading the program believe it is a privilege to work on the recovery of the turtle and are thankful to all those contributing to the shared goal of recovering the species in the wild. Strong collaborations and enduring partnerships, established during the emergency response and early conservation planning, remain a key strength in the recovery of this turtle.

Contributed by

Richard.Jakob-Hoff_41909's picture

Shane Ruming New South Wales Department of Planning and Environment

Other contributors

NSW Department of Planning and Environment (formerly Office of Environment and Heritage)
IUCN-SSC Conservation Planning Specialist Group
Taronga Conservation Society Australia
Taronga Conservation Society Australia
Western Sydney University
Wildlife Health Australia
Consultant freshwater ecologist
Western Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife