From crisis to conservation: almost 100 Bellinger River snapping turtles in largest release yet

In a significant milestone for one of the most critically endangered species, 97 zoo-bred Bellinger River snapping turtles have been released into the Bellinger River on Gumbaynggirr Country in a collaborative effort with the NSW Government’s Saving our Species program and Taronga Conservation Society Australia.

Held turtle looking directly at camera

This fifth and largest wild release takes the number of Bellinger River snapping turtles released into the wild to 179 since 2018, when the species was on the brink of extinction.

Thanks to a coordinated effort led by the NSW Government, this species of short-necked freshwater turtle was rescued in 2015 after a virus, now known as the Bellinger River Virus, infiltrated the river in Northern New South Wales. It caused a mass mortality event which wiped out 90% of the population in just 6 weeks.

At the time, a rapid response from the NSW Government’s Saving our Species program and partners placed 16 healthy turtles into a zoo-based breeding program led by Taronga Zoo. The captive breeding program has since expanded to include a second population at Symbio Wildlife Park.

The species is dependent on conservation intervention for its survival and without this program, would likely become extinct in the wild.

Releasing zoo-bred turtles occurs through an approved translocation plan guided by reptile and translocation experts, wildlife disease experts and zoo professionals. The turtles are monitored to gather information on survival, health, dispersal and habitat use.

The Bellinger River snapping turtle, found exclusively in a 60 kilometre stretch of the Bellinger River, was listed as critically endangered due to the virus outbreak. There is no cure for the virus and critical research is being undertaken by NSW Department of Primary Industries and partners including the Australian Registry of Wildlife located at Taronga Zoo to determine how the virus is transmitted and if it is still present.

The Saving our Species program has taken additional action to secure the turtle’s future, including habitat restoration in the upper Bellinger River, a citizen science program tracking water quality and comprehensive research into genetics, population dynamics and the virus.

The Bellinger River snapping turtle is one of 110 species prioritised for recovery under the Australian Government’s Threatened Species Action Plan.

This project relies on the contribution of project partners and stakeholders, including the Australian Government Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, Taronga Conservation Society Australia and Symbio Wildlife Park.

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