Turtles are still in decline despite rescue efforts
Pablo Cafiso didn’t waste any time. He saw the snapping turtle walking on Olympic Drive so he hit the brakes and pulled over to help.
The rescue was a scene that’s been played out many times over the years. Sometimes it’s Good Samaritans who happen to pass by at the right time. Other times it’s members of the turtle assistance group who do shifts watching for the reptiles along Olympic Drive and Cootes Drive.
But despite all these efforts — and extensive study and rehabilitative work by the Royal Botanical Gardens — turtle populations are continuing to decline.
Cootes Paradise used to be teeming with numerous varieties of turtles in healthy numbers. But now the reptiles are becoming an unusual sight.
It’s a problem all over the continent because of declining habitat, road mortality, pollution and even illegal collection for the pet trade.
In the 1980s, it was estimated there were more than 600 snapping turtles in Cootes Paradise.
Now that number has fallen to about 60, says Tys Theysmeyer, head of natural lands for the RBG. And the ones still around tend to be senior citizens, indicating that reproduction in recent decades has been largely unsuccessful.
« We know the snapping turtles we have are really old, » says Theysmeyer. Snapping turtles in captivity tend to live to be about 50 years old. In the wild, it’s thought they can live somewhat longer, but scientists are unsure.
The turtle rescued by Cafiso had a tag with the number 544. He took a photograph of the reptile and sent it to the Turtle Watch group, which passed it on to Theysmeyer. Based on the number and size of the turtle, he believes the creature is at least 50 years old and is nearing the end of its lifespan.
Other turtle species are even worse off than snapping turtles in Cootes. The wood turtle and the eastern spiny soft-shell can no longer be found in Cootes and no one has seen a common musk turtle for years.
There are only four known Blanding’s Turtles, three of which have been outfitted by RBG workers with radio tracking tags to monitor their movements. One of the turtles appears to have created a nest, with the other two on the « edge of nesting, » says Theysmeyer.
« It’s definitely desperate for turtles overall, » he says adding the situation is similar elsewhere in North America. « Until we see some new turtles out there, it’s definitely a worry. »
Efforts by the RBG include the installation of fencing along Cootes Drive to block the turtles from walking onto the road. The Hamilton Conservation Authority, on land it owns near Cootes, has also been putting up fencing for the same purpose.
The RBG has also been working a section of Cootes Paradise to make the terrain more suitable for egg laying.
In addition, RBG workers have been going through mountains of data they’ve collected in recent years to try to figure out further ways to help the creatures better survive in the future.
Volunteers with Turtle Watch continue their shifts, watching for turtles getting into danger with cars. The Turtle Watch website dundasturtlewatch.wordpress.com even has a video that explains the proper way to help a big turtle cross the road.
Joanna Chapman, co-ordinator of Dundas Turtle Watch, says, « I think the number of turtles hasn’t improved, but I think the awareness with members of the public has certainly improved and the involvement of RBG and the conservation authority is beginning to be extremely good indeed. »