Reptile research group turns to local community to help fund research to preserve species at risk

A reptile research and recovery program based in southwestern Ontario is asking for the community’s support in funding their research to protect the endangered wildlife.  

Southern Ontario At Risk Reptiles (SOARR) is preserving declining reptile populations by removing turtle nests from environments where they’re being damaged by human activity or climate events, fixing those habitats and releasing them back out into the wild.   

SOARR’s lead biologist, Scott Gillingwater, says that since turtles take many years to mature, the next decade is important to see how the species can be saved. But due to lack of funding from the province, the recovery efforts are struggling during its most crucial time.

“We are at a crossroads, the next 10 years are critical for these species, but we’re facing government funding that is unpredictable or not available at all,” he said. 

“We won’t know the outcome until they’ve matured and laid their own eggs, so it’s only after this that we can better assess how we’ve done and what the next steps will be.”

Scott Gillingwater has been a part of SOARR since its launch in 1994 and wants to keep the wildlife protection efforts going. (Submitted)

The grassroots program was launched by the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority, in 1994 to study the region’s popular Spiny Softshell Turtle, and since then has worked with a large number of threatened and endangered reptiles.

Increasing threats over time 

According to Gillingwater, the threats to wildlife species are only increasing as time goes by due to growing urbanization and human activities which are leading to habitat loss. 

“Human persecution is quite a problem for these at-risk species, and it’s leaving the reptiles with fewer opportunities to be protected where they are,” he said. 

Incubators filled with eggs at SOARR’s lab (Submitted by Scott Gillingwater)

Gillingwater also believes that there needs to be legislation which prioritizes these species and their survival because it’s difficult for habitats to be destroyed and rebuilt elsewhere. 

“There’s a lot of construction development and infrastructure for humans that takes precedence over the species and we need to consider them and the habitats they exist in,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks told CBC that due to the importance of wildlife protection, they’ve continued funding conservation programs.

“I know that the protection of species at risk is important to all Ontarians, and that is why we have continued yearly funding for this program. I look forward to continuing partnerships in future,” the statement said. 

One big ecosystem

Gillingwater says the survival of reptiles is equally as important to humans because all species rely on the same ecosystem, and preserving it is in everyone’s best interest.  

“If we see red flags coming up, obviously those situations can ultimately impact humans, but we can’t always view it through a human scope,” he said. “We need to realize that the ecosystem needs to function in a robust and healthy way.” 

While SOARR has received continuous funding from the Ministry since 2007, Gillingwater says the government was delayed in letting groups know who qualified for funding, and they weren’t notified until after their research was done.

The Ministry said that they received about 83 applications, all of which were double the amount of what the program’s budget is, and their decision was made with the help of over 30 conservation experts. 

A few turtles spotted in their natural habitats. (Submitted by Scott Gillingwater)

Gillingwater says that over the years, SOARR’s work has been able to help save various reptile populations and helped build a sustainable habitat for them, and by continuing this, they can help many others.

“This impacts our local communities, and the cities, and right now we need community involvement to ensure that when our future generations grow up, we will still have these species around,” he said.

Information on how to donate to the research can be found on the conservation authority’s website

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