Eastern long-necked turtles venture out of the water, crossing roads to nest, in November. (Supplied: Sam Hardy)
Turtles are being killed on the road during nesting season and it is now a major factor in their declining population, conservationists say.
November is one of the most dangerous months of the year for the eastern long-necked turtle and Murray short-necked turtle as they venture out of the water to nest and far too often become road fatalities.
These species are already considered under threat and their populations have been severely declining for years.
Natural Resources SA Murray-Darlin Basin wetland project officer Courtney Monk said it was quite concerning because the turtles played an important role in the ecosystem, keeping the wetlands and rivers clean.
“For the short-necked and the long-necked turtle, we’ve seen a population decline of 69 to 91 per cent,” Ms Monk said.
Wetland Project Officer Courtney Monk says turtle populations are low and not recovering. (Supplied: Myles Fauser )
She said there were a lot of factors putting pressure on the turtle populations and the Millennium drought was definitely one of them.
But even now, population levels were low and not recovering.
Foxes preying on turtle nests
Turtles Australia president Graham Stockfeld said another major threat faced by turtles in the nesting season was foxes raiding nests and attacking nesting females.
“I’ve just come back from work up at Gunbower Island in northern Victoria and in the few days we’ve been there … we recorded well over a hundred nests that have been dug up by foxes,” he said.
“We only managed to protect about nine or 10 nests. That’s not a very good survival rate, unfortunately.
“If we see a turtle nest that has been dug up by a fox, that’s one year’s eggs that have been lost.
“If a female turtle gets killed on the road that might be 30 or 40 years’ worth of eggs that have been lost.
“Both have an impact, but the impact of roadkill is significant.”
Dead eastern long-necked turtles are a common sight during nesting season. (Supplied: TurtleSAT )
Ms Monk said the eastern long-necked turtle and Murray short-necked turtle were among the species with high juvenile mortality rates, and only their adults had lower mortality rates.
“Every time you lose an adult you’re even more at risk of your population to collapse,” she said.
Ms Monk said there were not enough juvenile turtles surviving to replenish the population as adults died.
More education on turtle behaviour needed
While citizens have the opportunity to record turtle sightings and injured or killed turtles through the TurtleSAT app, local authorities and researchers want to see more awareness and education in the community about turtle behaviour.
Ms Monk said it was difficult to reduce turtle road fatalities, but people needed to be made more aware of turtles’ behaviour.
“I think people don’t know a lot about turtles. If you see a kangaroo on the road you know to slow down, but if you see a turtle by the side of the road you might not realise that it is possibly about to cross the road,” Ms Monk said.
Another idea Ms Monk raised was putting up road signage in November, if there were noticeably high levels of turtle deaths in certain areas.
Mr Stockfeld said efforts to raise awareness had been quite successful in some communities and Turtles Australia did everything it could as an organisation.
Mr Stockfeld says they do everything they can to protect the young turtles. (Supplied: Greg Wallis)
“Because it is such a seasonal thing … you raise awareness this year and people forget the next. It’s a busy world we live in unfortunately,” Mr Stockfeld said.
Western Sydney University Associate Professor of Ecology and Turtle SAT app project manager Dr Ricky Spencer said community engagement to record turtle sightings had been successful since they launched the app in 2014.
“We’ve basically got, over the last two years, nearly 7,000 sightings and most of this sighting, about 90 per cent, are from roadkill or dug up turtle nests from foxes,” Dr Spencer said.
“We are seeing a huge amount of mortality particularly through South Eastern Australia.
Dr Ricky Spencer says in some areas like in South Australia they now see localised extinction. (ABC Rural: Jemima Burt)
“We are actually getting to the point where in some areas like in South Australia we are seeing localised extinction, and we need to do something about it fast.”
“We need to know where they are hit on roads so we can actually do something about it, and we need to know where their nesting sites are so that we can do things like fox control [so] we can put up fences and we can start protecting nests.”
Volunteers help protect turtle nests
Mr Stockfeld said they were working with universities and catchment management authorities to apply different methods of fox control.
To protect turtle eggs during the incubation period, Turtles Australia volunteers located nests and installed mesh over nests to protect the eggs from foxes.
“It’s been taken up in isolated areas where we have people on the ground, but you have to have people when they are nesting and it can be quite difficult to organise,” he said.
Another project to control the predators was a fox baiting program conducted at the Gunbower Island State Forest last year, which showed good short-term results, according to Mr Stockfeld.
“It had an impact in November last year, the amount of fox predation went down significantly, but by the time March rolled around and the broad-shelled turtles were nesting, the impact of that baiting had gone, the foxes had repopulated.”
Volunteers help to install mash over nests to protect the turtle eggs from foxes. (Supplied: Turtles Australia)