Turtle state of emergency
Experts say the province’s turtle population has suffered for many years but concerns have resurfaced since a recent state of emergency was declared for Ontario turtles.
“In Ontario, seven out of the eight species are listed as species at risk,” said turtle surgeon, Sue Carstairs, the executive and medical director at the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTCC) in Peterborough.
Carstairs has more than 20 years of experience in wildlife medicine. For the past 10 years, with the OTCC, she has helped rehabilitate injured turtles and operated on turtle shells that have been crushed by cars.
She said that though the Ontario and global turtle population has suffered for many years, there has been a huge spike in admissions to the centre this season. The OTCC declared the state of emergency in May.
“The centre has seen 650 turtles this season, double what we have seen previously and that’s probably only a fraction of the ones that are out there that aren’t found, or go unrecognized — we are just bursting at the seams,” said Carstairs.
She is unsure of the exact cause of the rising numbers of admissions, but believes the increase may be a result of record rainfall in Ontario so far this year.
“In any environment you need biodiversity in order for it to be healthy and turtles are a huge part of that,” said Carstairs. “If this trend continues I don’t want to know what would happen. It’s not good for the environment and will be detrimental for the ecosystems.”
According to Carstairs, 90 per cent of turtle deaths occur on roadways. Other causes include, habitat loss, poaching for pet trade and fishing.
“Their populations are in huge trouble — the problem with turtles is their life is such that you can’t afford to lose any adults because the population only remains healthy if the adult population ages for a long time and has low mortality,” said Carstairs.
A new initiative explained by Carstairs outlines a future solution to the rate of turtle mortality by constructing eco passages.
“This new initiative is still in progress but we expect to see changes over the next 20 years,” she said. “The solution involves culverts running under the roads where low-lying fences lead turtles to the culvert, reducing the mortality rate.”
Mollie Sitwell of Prince Edward County is an avid turtle-saver who has rescued 10 turtles this season from roadways.
“Turtles are beautiful creatures — they’re just trying to get across the road to lay their eggs,” said Sitwell. “I don’t understand why people don’t rescue them if it’s safe to do so. I just can’t drive by.”
Sitwell has shared numerous videos and photographs on Facebook of her turtle saves this season to create awareness.
“I started video-taping after I saw a horrific turtle killing when I pulled over a few weeks ago,” she said. “I decided to video-tape it so that people could see how avoidable it could be.”
Carstairs encourages people to save turtles if they can. Human safety is paramount on roadways, but if they have the opportunity to pull their vehicle over, put the four-way flashers on and help a turtle across the road in the direction they are headed to save them, they should.
“Every turtle that we save is important and every turtle that is killed on the roads is vital,” said Carstairs.
If a person finds an injured turtle in Ontario they are encouraged to call the OTCC hotline at, 705-741-5000. For turtle handling tips and how to donate visit, https://ontarioturtle.ca/