The collection of wild Manning River helmeted turtles (Myuchelys purvis) for the creation of an insurance population of the endangered animal is planned to take place on Monday, December 23.
"Fire permitting," said Aussie Ark director and Australian Reptile Park general manager and head of conservation.
All things going well, 12 turtles will be collected from sites on the Barnard and Manning Rivers.
Joining Tim Faulkner and Aussie Ark staff on the expedition are turtle expert Dr Ricky Spencer of Western Sydney University, and NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) officers and ecologists.
As well as collecting the first insurance population, the team will assess whether emergency intervention is needed.
"The only thing holding us back, if anything, is the water quality to be able to catch turtles," Tim said.
The worst drought in the region's recorded history has dried up the Manning River and its tributaries, and there are concerns for the future existence of the turtle. Bushfires have only exacerbated the situation.
The rivers have been reduced to isolated pools where water is of very poor quality making visibility while snorkelling, Tim's preferred method for finding the turtles, difficult.
"The turtles are restricted to the deepest holes. The problem is water is coming out of those holes, the RFS are needing to pull water of those holes, agriculture is still pumping out of it for their own use. But there is no water coming in," Tim said.
"They are really resilient to dirty water - they can handle it. The critical thing is the temperature. If those pools are at such a level and they heat up, those turtles cannot thermoregulate that well. They're surrounded by water, they can't cool down.
"The reality is that could push them out of the water where they will inevitably perish from starvation, predation from ferals and the like. It's not emergency intervention time right now but we will monitor for that," Tim said
The reality is that could push them out of the water where they will inevitably perish from starvation, predation from ferals and the like.Tim Faulkner
The creation of an insurance population has been more than 18 months in the making. From Tim's first idea early in 2018, to the launching of a crowd funding campaign in August 2018, and finally to building the facility for the project off exhibit at the Australian Reptile Park and obtaining proper licence and ticking off ethics, it has taken longer than Tim would have liked.
"Now we're ready to rock and roll; right now we're poised to be ready for intervention and alternatively we are commencing collection and we hope to have some good news over Christmas," he said.
"The position that the turtles are in, from my perspective and the same for the Manning River Turtle Conservation Group, is that we all recognised this long before these fires and this drought. We're not jumping back on the top of a capitalist opportunity like fire and drought. We've been working at this for years.
Can they recover from this? Who knows! Will the rivers ever return to the state that they were? Who knows. But they need water desperately.Tim Faulkner
"This (situation) really validates what we are doing, but more so it reiterates the need for what we are doing.
"Long before the fires we also know that these turtles were already endangered. The threat of fox, erosion of nesting sites, all that stuff was long before the drought and the fires, and so the compound now is just is really serious.
"Can they recover from this? Who knows! Will the rivers ever return to the state that they were? Who knows. But they need water desperately.
"So at the moment we are collecting (for an insurance population) however if we need to switch to emergency intervention, turtles will be rescued and they will be placed in Western Sydney University with Dr Ricky Spencer, and with us. We are very prepared for that," Tim said.
Community can help
Tim suggests members of the public can help by keeping an eye out for dead or dying Manning River turtles in the middle and upper limits of the Manning River and its tributaries.
"We're on to it, we're across it, but the community is out there and we're not up there all of the time. If you can stop and have a look at a pond - you don't need to remove the turtle."
"If you see a dead turtle - hopefully we'll get rain before that point, but it is a real reality - so if the community could stop at the holes they know, have a look because we can save them. We can rescue them, we can care for them, and we can put them back when the time is right," Tim said
If you find any Manning River turtles that are dead or dying, contact Aussie Ark 4326 5333 or the Australian Reptile Park on 4340 1022 at any time, seven days a week.
"Ask for Tim and leave a message," Tim said.
For more information on the Manning River turtle and Aussie Ark visit https://www.aussieark.org.au/manning-river-helmeted-turtle/.