Endangered turtles protected from feral predators

[February 2014] 

New funding from Rangelands NRM will help to protect endangered turtles from feral predators in the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area. 

One of the biggest threats to turtle nests on the WA Ningaloo Coast is predation by feral animals such as the European red fox (Vulpes vulpes).

Support has been provided to the Gnaraloo Station Trust by Rangelands NRM through funding from the Australian Government to prevent turtle nest predation by foxes, feral cats and wild dogs. 

Work involves feral animal control and associated scientific monitoring to determine and demonstrate the effectiveness of the feral control program, but also supports communication and educational activities with community groups, primary and high schools in regional and metropolitan locations in Western Australia.

Gnaraloo is a working pastoral station and wilderness tourism business located approximately 150 km north of Carnarvon in remote north-western Australia. 

Environmental Advisor for Gnaraloo Station and GTCP Project Manager, Ms Karen Hattingh, said the turtle nesting rookeries on the Gnaraloo coastline are of major importance as the largest confirmed mainland nesting rookeries of endangered loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) in Western Australia, with consecutive full season surveys since 2008. The nesting areas are also used by endangered green turtles (Chelonia mydas) and critically endangered hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata).

“The Gnaraloo Station Trust has been researching sea turtle nesting activities on the Gnaraloo coastline since 2008 and has implemented the Gnaraloo Turtle Conservation Program (GTCP) to undertake this work,” Ms Hattingh said. 

There are two key sea turtle nesting rookeries on the Gnaraloo coastline, within the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area (NCWHA) and Ningaloo Marine Park, namely the Gnaraloo Bay Rookery and Gnaraloo Cape Farquhar Rookery. 

In 2008, the Gnaraloo Feral Animal Control Program (GFACP) was put in place by the Gnaraloo Station Trust to track and bait foxes, feral cats and wild dogs across all 220,000 acres of Gnaraloo and prevent turtle nest predation.

Calculations are that around 45,000 loggerhead eggs have been protected from feral animal predation at Gnaraloo Bay each season since 2010/11.

“To June 2013, this amounts to roughly 135,000 eggs in total of endangered loggerhead sea turtles being protected from feral predation at this rookery,” Ms Hattingh said.

The GFACP works with Animal Pest Management Services (APMS) for baiting and trapping feral animals on Gnaraloo. 

Each turtle nesting season, a field research team of two to six scientific interns and a program assistant is recruited from Australia and all over the world to undertake monitoring of Gnaraloo beaches for turtle nesting activities and feral animal tracks from 1 November to 28 February, as part of a six month internship under the GTCP Scientific Internship Program.  

At the start of the season 2013/14, APMS provided the GTCP Project Manager and the GTCP field research team with office and field based training on Gnaraloo in feral animal track identification. 

“We learnt how to distinguish between fox, cat and dog tracks, how to properly photograph and record feral animal tracks and then underwent a written competency assessment,” Brendan Slade, one of the GTCP scientific interns 2013/14 said.
 
Prior to Gnaraloo’s work, little scientific data was available about sea turtle nesting activities on the Gnaraloo coastline. 

Ms Hattingh said Gnaraloo has established a unique Monitoring Evaluation Reporting and Improvement (MERI) link between the GTCP and the GFACP. 

“The GTCP field researchers monitor turtle nesting rookeries for feral animal activities, including for presence, disturbance or predation,” she said.

“This information is provided to APMS in real time so that they may target specific animals and areas for feral animal control before predation commences on turtle nests.”

“This partnership has been very effective in preventing feral animal predation of turtle nests in the Gnaraloo Bay Rookery during the past three seasons (2010/11 – 2012/13) and so far during 2013/14, as monitored independently by the GTCP.”

Removing the presence of foxes, wild dogs and feral cats does not just help the nesting loggerhead, green and hawksbill sea turtle species at Gnaraloo. The work under the GFACP also protects other high conservation areas on and adjoining the area, including protecting many as yet unstudied species of native fauna such as small to medium sized mammals, marsupials, ground nesting birds, reptiles and insects, including at and around the significant inland Lake MacLeod wetland system. 

“The GFACP will also add valuable data on conservation efforts and predator control over the medium to long term,” Ms Hattingh said.

For more information about the GTCP and GFACP, visit the Gnaraloo website, ‘Like’ Gnaraloo Turtle Conservation Program on Facebook or contact Karen Hattingh via 08 9942 5927.  

Image: A loggerhead in the Gnaraloo Bay Rookery taking a breather after laying her nest before heading back out to sea. (Photo courtesy of the Gnaraloo Turtle Conservation Program, by Brendan Slade.)