Sat, Dec 15, 2018 - Page 4 News List

Endangered punk turtle’s fame fails to inspire action

The Guardian

An undated handout photograph made available by the Zoological Society of London on April 13 shows a Mary River turtle at an undisclosed location.

Photo: Chris Van Wyk/Zoological Society of London

It was “the punk turtle” — an eccentric and yet strangely human-looking reptile with a vivid green mohican, fleshy “fingers” under its chin and the ability to breathe through its genitals.

The Mary River turtle went viral in April, when pictures of the hitherto little-known creature were shared around the world after it was placed 30th on the Zoological Society of London’s Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered list for reptiles.

The rating, which guides conservation priorities for at-risk species, was compiled by Rikki Gumbs, who said that turtle fascination “went absolutely crazy” after its publication, as he fielded calls from journalists around the world.

Reptiles are often overlooked, but the connection many felt for the animal does not surprise Gumbs.

“It’s the least these amazing reptiles deserve,” he said. “Once people can see how incredible and unique they are, it’s not surprising they are drawn to them.”

The turtle became endangered because it was widely collected for the pet trade in the 1960s and ’70s. Such collecting is outlawed now, but the turtle faces a new threat.

It is only found on a relatively small part of the Mary River in Queensland, Australia, and is imperiled by the loss and degradation of its habitat. Non-native plants prevent it laying eggs in sandy river banks; non-native foxes and dogs predate it.

When the turtle became famous, T-shirts were printed and sold, and Melbourne’s punk music scene held a concert to raise funds.

A crowdfunder has raised more than A$15,000 (US$10,762) to help conserve the species and its habitat. Peak turtle frenzy was reached when Cate Blanchett voiced a Mary River turtle puppet in a campaign video by the Wilderness Society to save “ugly” animals.

“That was pretty good and quite surreal,” Gumbs said.

He welcomes the Hollywood treatment for such “underdog species,” but the punk turtle’s surge into the spotlight has not substantially changed its fortunes.

“Despite all of this great media attention, there’s been no real action from the Australian government to change anything yet, which is a real shame,” he said.

There is no formal protection for any reptiles in Australia and no “species recovery plan” for the turtle, despite the Australian government first-drafting a river-based recovery plan for species, including the Mary River turtle in 2013.

Although the then-Labor government allocated A$2.4 million over six years to improve the health of the Mary River, the plan has not been enacted.

According to one local environment charity, it would only cost A$40,000 a year to save the turtle.

Gumbs points out that other species, such as Australia’s western swamp turtle, are also endangered.

For all the great publicity, he said: “Reptiles are still completely overlooked.”

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