Irwin's Turtle at a hatchery near Imbil. The Irwin's Turtle was discovered by Steve and Bob Irwin.
Irwin's Turtle at a hatchery near Imbil. The Irwin's Turtle was discovered by Steve and Bob Irwin.

Urannah Dam would 'likely' see turtle extinction

WE HAVE a freshwater river turtle living in our backyard - found only in the tributaries of the Bowen River system - that breathes through its cloaca.

The elseya irwini, a freshwater snapping turtle, is extremely rare and was first discovered by the late Steve Irwin, Crocodile Hunter, and his father, Bob Irwin, while on a fishing expedition on the Bowen River in the early 1990s.

The species has been listed as a high priority for conservation under Queensland's Nature Conservation Act (1992).

Developments such as the Urannah Dam Scheme present a grave threat to the existence of the Irwin turtle, as it's colloquially known. The dam site is located in the upper Broken River Valley, southeast of Collinsville.

With its distinctive creamy white head and pink-tinged nose, the turtle is easy to spot but so elusive that sightings in the wild can be years apart.

There is still very little known about this species, although biologists estimate numbers to be less than 5000 in a 25sq km range of the Broken/Bowen River systems.

Mackay Conservation Group coordinator Peter McCallum addresses the crows at the Walk for Water.
Mackay Conservation Group coordinator Peter McCallum addresses the crows at the Walk for Water. Emma Murray

The Irwin turtle has survived in isolation for 150 million years, digging nests into the riverbanks and laying small clutches of 10 to 12 eggs just once through each winter season.

The females are some of the largest of all freshwater species in Australia, weighing in at almost 6kg compared to their more diminutive male mate, whose mass is just 1.3kg.

Mackay Conservation Group co-ordinator Peter McCallum believes the proposed Urannah Dam Scheme will destroy the pristine habitat of this rare turtle.

"If the Urannah Dam project goes ahead, it will result in the muddying of the Bowen and Broken River waterways during construction, and a restricting of the flow of water after the dam is completed," Mr McCallum said.

"This would likely send the Irwin's turtle to extinction, especially given that the sandy banks of the streams will be flooded, and so too their nesting grounds.

"Over the last 50 years, 18 different feasibility studies have been undertaken and each and every one of them found that it doesn't make economic sense to progress with the Urannah Dam project," he said.

"A species which has survived in isolation for 150 million years could be wiped out within a decade."

Predominantly herbivorous as adults, these turtles graze on leaf matter, stems, fruit, algae and aquatic plants of the terrestrial riparian zones along riverbanks and the adjoining wetlands.

The elusive Irwin's turtle often basks on exposed rocks and logs along the river edges and they have also been observed floating with just their heads breaking the surface of the water.

Biologists studying the species say there is much to learn about the turtle's habitat and they are currently working on collecting more specimens and observing them in the wild to learn more about their behaviour.

Find out more about the Irwin's turtle and the unique environment provided at Urannah Creek by visiting urannah.com.au.


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