MYSTERY: Rare Bellinger River turtles were examined at Dolphin Marine Magic after the outbreak was reported.
MYSTERY: Rare Bellinger River turtles were examined at Dolphin Marine Magic after the outbreak was reported. Gemima Harvey

Fight continues to save rare turtles

SEVENTEEN turtles in quarantine and a team of scientists could be all that saves the rare Bellinger River snapping turtle from extinction.

An estimated 400 of the threatened turtles have died from a mystery disease in an outbreak discovered in the Bellinger River in February.

In a race against time, authorities established the state's first wildlife biosecurity team to prevent the disease from spreading to nearby waterways.

Scientists were able to recover 17 turtles from the last remaining section of the river where the disease had not spread.

Zoologist Ricky Spencer said the turtles were being cared for in special tanks at a quarantine facility at University of Western Sydney.

"Over 90% of the turtle's home range is affected and the disease appears to have a 100% mortality rate," Dr Spencer said.

"The species has almost been wiped out in less than a two months - the impact is unlike anything we have seen in turtles in Australia," he said.

Turtles with the disease lose weight and become disoriented, with symptoms including lesions, particularly around their eyes.

Tests have not been able to identify a pathogen or toxin responsible.

"The cause (of the outbreak) is completely unknown," Dr Spencer said.

"It doesn't seem to be one mystery virus or disease that can actually be found," he said.

The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage said there had been several efforts to determine the cause and extent of the problem.

But even with active management, recovery of the species could take more than a decade if the disease did not wipe them out.

Dr Spencer said work would continue to try to save the species in partnership with the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, Taronga Zoo, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Services, and a team of other experts.



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