A colony of turtles, established in the Carmichael Reserve, right here in Tauranga?
Well-known and respected local conservationist and writer Ann Graeme was skeptical about a reported sighting. She was then gob-smacked when she saw for herself. “It never occurred to me turtles could possibly be in our local waterways. That’s the last thing we need.”
It was probably a red-eared slider – a native of the US and Mexico – and regarded by conservation authorities as one of the world’s 100 most invasive species.
The Tauranga sighting comes amid intense examination of a possible threat to our bio-security, our native flora and fauna and whether ownership of the turtles as pets should be outlawed or controls tightened.
An old friend told Ann she had watched a turtle laying eggs. “I thought ‘oh yes, in Florida or somewhere’.” Actually, it was right at the bottom of the street.
“She saw the turtle come out of the water, waddle up the bank, dig a hole, lay its eggs, cover it up and then return to the water.”
Ann visited the nest. The conservationist wanted to see for herself. “I poked around - the ground was quite loose, and up comes a turtle egg. Then another.” She was horrified. “Another pest,” she says. “I mean, don’t we have enough introduced pests?”
The more she learned from the Bay of Plenty Regional Council, the more astonished she became. The turtles at the Carmichael Reserve are abandoned pets or the progeny of abandoned pets.
People buy a dead-set cute four centimeter pet for the kids, not realising they can live for over 50 years and grow to the size of a dinner plate.
“Once they reach adult size and outgrow their aquarium and appeal, owners may think it is better or easier to release them into the wild,” says Donna Watchman, Bay of Plenty Regional Council bio-security officer.
But turtles being released into waterways like Carmichael Reserve could create problems for the wide ecosystem, especially nesting water birds, taking over nests and eating eggs and hatchlings. The slider is an opportunist towards food, eating vegetation, small birds or insects.
Waikato Regional Council has taken a hardball stance – a pest management review means fines maxing out at $5000 for anyone caught releasing a red-eared slider.
Turtles are also getting established in Auckland’s Western Springs, where words like “explosion” and “infestation” are being bandied about. The city has responded with a major pest management review, including a law change on ownership and a cull.
Here in Tauranga and elsewhere, it’s an animal welfare issue stacked in favour of the turtle. It’s illegal to import the red-eared slider, but it’s not illegal to own them or breed them.
It is illegal to release them, not because of the threat they present, but because it’s cruel to the turtle. As pets they’re conditioned to be cared for, and then they’re released into the environment to fend for themselves.
However, the Ministry for Primary Industries is looking at an accord agreement to provide “a nationally coordinated and consistent approach for managing high-risk pet species and advocacy for responsible ownership”.
The accord will focus on domestic trade in pets, and while not requiring pet owners to give up their pets, it may control breeding, selling and movement of certain species. In effect, the accord will decide whether regulation is warranted and how to encourage responsible pet ownership.
Ann was busy discussing her encounter with the reptiles in Carmichael Reserve with The Weekend Sun when nine-year-old grandson Freddie chimed in excitedly.
“I have seen a turtle in the Carmichael Reserve,” he said. “Its head was bobbing up and down.” Brother Stanley confirmed the sighting, and they know their turtles. A cousin has one as a pet.
Red eared sliders don’t even come with a good ‘rep’ – they’re not affectionate, can bite and be cantankerous and don’t like handling, stroking or cuddling. They also prefer to be alone, and can transmit salmonella and do horrendous poops. Why would you?