In a milestone moment, conservationists have released 10 endangered Manning River turtles back into the wild as steps to save the species continue.
Featuring a distinctive yellow stripe, the Australian turtle lives only in the middle and upper reaches of the Manning River catchment on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales.
In recent years the species' numbers have declined significantly due to threats including fox predation, habitat degradation and disease.
In a bid to prevent the turtle becoming extinct, a range of conservation measures are underway, including a breeding program established by the conservation organisation Aussie Ark in partnership with other conservation groups.
In 2020, during the bushfire disaster, the organisation rescued 10 turtles from the nest, while still in the egg. It's those turtles that have now been released as healthy two-year-olds.
The Aussie Ark managing director Tim Faulkner said the release of the turtles was the first of its kind for the program, which was established in 2018.
He said it was a "monumental, historical day" that was a "very special day for these turtles".
"We have cared for these juveniles for over two years now and have watched and waited patiently as our river systems recovered from fire, drought and then floods," Mr Faulkner said.
"This is what the program is all about; rescuing an endangered species and getting them back to the wild.
"Getting to see them swim off into the river is not a sight I will soon forget."
Young turtles provide hope for species
The program has been supported by the Australian government's wildlife rescue and rehabilitation initiative following the bushfire disaster of 2019/20, as well as partners with the Australian Reptile Park, the Re:wild conservation organisation and NSW Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service (WIRES).
Head of reptiles at the Australian Reptile Park Jake Meney has been involved in raising the turtles and says their release will provide a significant boost to the species' overall population.
"It's incredibly rewarding to see 10 little turtles you have raised up from hatchlings," he said.
"When they are first hatched they are only the size of a two-dollar coin."
Mr Meney said often turtle eggs and hatchlings were lost due to fox predation and releasing more mature turtles would help break that cycle.
"Foxes are predating adult females as they come onto the land to lay their eggs, and also the really bad thing for these turtles, is their eggs are being predated on," he said.
Mr Meney said as a result of the predation, two-year-old turtles were "incredibly rare" in the current wild population.
"So for us to be able to release that next generation and have them thrive and hopefully go on to breed themselves, that is the goal," he said.
Conditions in the Manning River were monitored for many months prior to the turtles' release to ensure they were suitable, with sufficient food availability and nesting environments.
"These particular turtles were rescued during one of the worst drought and bushfire disasters our country has seen," Mr Meney said.
"Since then, though, their river systems have been hugely impacted by severe floods.
"It has been critical that we watch and wait patiently before releasing these guys back."
More hatchlings on the way
The turtles were the first to hatch in Aussie Ark's care.
In total, 20 Manning River turtles hatched in March and April 2020 and Aussie Ark hopes to witness the hatching of additional turtles in the coming months for this year's breeding season.
"We have another 10 turtles set to be released, likely early next year," Mr Meney said.
He said the hope was to eventually release the turtles back into the wild in much larger numbers.
"We have a captive population of adults, so we really hope moving forward we can get clutches of eggs from them year in, year out," Mr Meney said.
"It is our goal eventually to not be releasing 10 turtles, but perhaps be releasing several hundred, or a thousand, each year to really boost their numbers."