Who Associate Professor Ricky Spencer, Western Sydney University, Co-Program Lead of the 1 Million Turtles Community Conservation Program
What The 1 Million Turtle Team’s Community Conservation Program uses the TurtleSAT app to involve citizen scientists in hands-on activities such as habitat construction and restoration, nest protection and fox management. Emphasising STEM literacy and First Nations knowledge, the Australia-wide program has influenced policy, and saved over 1,000 freshwater turtles and 200 nests in 2022 alone.
Co-winner of the of the 2023 Department of Industry, Science and Resources Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science
What were some of the key factors that led to the establishment of the 1 Million Turtles Community Conservation Program?
The establishment of the 1 Million Turtles Community Conservation Program was a response to a confluence of factors that painted a compelling narrative, blending inspiration and action.
First and foremost, the program was spurred by the alarming findings of long-term researchers along the Murray River who had discovered worrying declines in turtle populations. These declines served as a clarion call for conservation efforts, prompting the need for immediate action to protect these remarkable creatures and their ecosystems.
The journey to establish the program involved immersive discovery tours where we engaged in candid conversations with local communities and First Nations people. Their shared observations and concerns further confirmed the stark reality of turtle population declines. This direct engagement with these communities became a pivotal moment that underscored the urgency of the conservation cause.
In the car and at the motels during these discovery tours, a moment of innovation emerged with the development of the TurtleSAT app. It became evident that consistent trends of turtle population decline needed a systematic way to capture valuable sightings and quantify the impacts of threats such as foxes and road mortality. The app, born from these realisations, played a crucial role in the program's foundation.
In addition to igniting passion, the program sought to transform the traditional one-way citizen science model into a dynamic two-way street.
A significant driving force behind the program was the universal love and passion people held for turtles. Not only did they cherish these fascinating creatures, but they also revelled in discussing them. This passion offered a tremendous opportunity to mobilise individuals and stakeholders in the conservation efforts.
In addition to igniting passion, the program sought to transform the traditional one-way citizen science model into a dynamic two-way street. It was envisioned as a framework that could empower citizen scientists to evolve into engaged community conservationists, fostering a sense of ownership and active participation in safeguarding turtle populations.
Beyond its immediate goals, the 1 Million Turtles Community Conservation Program aspired to provide an enduring framework for citizen science. It aimed to cultivate a community-driven approach that would not only protect turtles and their habitats but also provide a model for conservation efforts that could be sustained for generations to come. The program is a testament to the power of collaboration, innovation, and the collective love for these unique and charismatic native animals.
Can you tell us a little bit about the 1 Million Turtles citizen science community and the work that they do?
The 1 Million Turtles citizen science community is a diverse and inclusive network of individuals who share a deep passion for turtle conservation and the preservation of their natural habitats. This community is united by their common love for the local wetlands and the remarkable turtles that inhabit them.
Members of this community represent a wide spectrum of backgrounds, ages, and levels of experience. It's a place where individuals, from those encountering turtles for the first time during guided turtle tours around urban lakes to passionate conservationists with a lifelong commitment to all things turtle-related, come together to make a positive impact.
One of the distinctive features of this community is its commitment to education. We actively engage with primary schools, offering programs that introduce young students to the significance of turtle conservation. One of our initiatives, the National Nest Predation Survey, involves schools in monitoring foxes and safeguarding turtle nests, providing children with a hands-on experience of wildlife conservation.
The 1 Million Turtles community also values local engagement, involving farmers who play a critical role in their efforts. Farmers protect turtle nests in their fields and, when necessary, relocate turtles to ensure their safety. This collaboration emphasises the importance of involving diverse stakeholders in the protection of these ecosystems.
Another wonderful aspect of this community is its intergenerational participation. Residents of a local retirement home actively contribute by recording turtle sightings around their pond. This simple act of involvement provides valuable data that contributes to a better understanding of local turtle populations.
At the heart of the 1 Million Turtles community is a shared passion for local wetlands and the turtles that inhabit them. This love unites its members, regardless of their differences, and motivates their collective commitment to the conservation of these vital ecosystems. Through their collective efforts, they play a significant role in safeguarding these ecosystems and the invaluable biodiversity they support.
How does the program approach conservation?
The 1 Million Turtles program adopts a unique approach to conservation by viewing citizen science as a two-way collaboration rather than a one-sided data collection effort. Instead of considering citizen scientists as mere data collectors, the program empowers them to actively participate in the conservation of turtles and their habitats.
Citizen scientists are provided with a range of scientifically valid tools, enabling them to evolve into active community conservationists.
Central to this approach is the TurtleSAT app, which serves as the program's cornerstone. This app is more than just a data collection tool; it is a real-time data visualisation platform. When a citizen scientist records a turtle observation, the data becomes instantly accessible, allowing individuals to understand its significance right away. For example, TurtleSAT highlights crucial information like hotspots for turtle road deaths and nest predation by foxes, which are updated in real-time. This immediate feedback fosters a deeper sense of engagement among participants.
Integral to the 1 Million Turtles program is its commitment to education and engagement. Citizen scientists are provided with a range of scientifically valid tools, enabling them to evolve into active community conservationists. These tools not only empower individuals to identify conservation issues but also equip them to take tangible actions. This may involve rescuing turtles from roads, safeguarding nests from potential threats, or even contributing to the construction of turtle nesting islands. The program recognises that everyone, regardless of their background or experience, can play a vital role in protecting turtles and their habitats.
In essence, the 1 Million Turtles program places great emphasis on the active engagement of citizen scientists in conservation efforts. It utilises technology, such as TurtleSAT, to facilitate real-time data collection and visualisation, making it accessible and actionable for all. Furthermore, it goes beyond data collection, focusing on education and empowerment to create a community of individuals who actively contribute to turtle conservation. This approach promotes a sense of shared responsibility and encourages local communities to take direct, meaningful actions in the protection of turtles and their vital ecosystems.
1 Million Turtles collaborates with First Nations Peoples to maintain cultural knowledge of turtles. Can you share a little about this aspect of the program?
1 Million Turtles has established a close collaboration with the Ngarrendjeri Aboriginal Corporation (NAC) and the South Australia Riverlands and Murraylands Landscape Board to facilitate a series of Yarning Circles. These circles create a nurturing environment for Ngarrendjeri Elders to impart their invaluable knowledge regarding turtles and environmental changes spanning over the past seven decades. Within these sessions, our active engagement involved inquiring about various facets of turtles, allowing Elders to guide the discussions towards topics they considered most significant.
NAC has diligently documented these interactions and is currently in the process of creating a video that will serve as a timeless repository of this wisdom. This video will play a vital role in preserving the profound cultural ties of the Ngarrendjeri people to their land and its wildlife for generations to come. As a direct outcome of our engagement, we have initiated turtle population surveys within the South Australia Lower Lakes region, guided by the expressed desires of the Ngarrendjeri community. Our collaboration extends to working closely with the University of Adelaide and the South Australia Department of Environment and Water.
Furthermore, we have partnered with the South Australian Aboriginal Learning on Country (ALoC) Program. ALoC is committed to providing training and employment opportunities for Aboriginal individuals, enabling them to strengthen their connection with the land and acquire skills and knowledge to contribute to turtle conservation and land management efforts along the Murray River. ALoC trainees participate in on-the-job and coursework training, working towards achieving a Certificate III and/or Certificate IV in Conservation and Land Management over two years. Additionally, school-based trainees are actively involved in turtle and nest surveys using TurtleSAT, contributing to their progress toward the South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE).
Our aspiration is that this engagement model can be extended to connect with other First Nations Peoples across Australia who share a deep cultural connection to turtles.
What role does technology play in the 1 Million Turtles program?
We are pushing the boundaries between citizen science data and artificial intelligence (AI) at 1 Million Turtles. Technology plays a pivotal role in the 1 Million Turtles program, serving as a powerful enabler for individuals of all levels to actively participate in turtle conservation. The program leverages technology in several key ways to make a positive impact and engage a diverse range of participants.
In addition to data collection and visualisation, the 1 Million Turtles program utilises advanced technology, including artificial intelligence (AI), to develop tools that are outward-facing and easy to use. For example, we've developed a turtle habitat and nest predictor tool that is solely based on the extensive dataset gathered through TurtleSAT. With this tool, anyone can enter their address and access information about turtle nesting hotspots in their local area. This not only aids in conservation efforts but also helps community members develop a more profound connection with the turtles that share their environment.
Furthermore, technology is integrated into their educational efforts. By providing scientifically valid tools and resources, the program equips citizen scientists to become active community conservationists. These tools empower individuals to take tangible actions, such as rescuing turtles from roads, protecting nests, or even constructing turtle nesting islands. The program's use of technology is designed to break down barriers and make conservation accessible to people from all backgrounds and levels of experience.
What does winning a Eureka Prize mean to you?
Winning a Eureka Prize holds profound significance for us. It serves as a validation of the path we've chosen for citizen science, one that empowers individuals and transforms them into active, influential conservationists. It means that our efforts are not only recognised but celebrated as a pioneering approach to environmental stewardship.
We accept this award on behalf of everyone involved in the 1 Million Turtles program, as it symbolises our shared commitment to making a positive and lasting difference in the world of conservation.
This accolade underscores the idea that, through our work, people are not merely passive observers of nature but rather integral stakeholders in their local environment. This shift in perspective is critical, as it paves the way for fostering lifelong connections with the natural world. It's about nurturing a sense of responsibility and a deep-seated commitment to preserving the planet and its unique ecosystems for future generations.
Moreover, this recognition acknowledges the powerful collaboration that exists between researchers and communities across the country. The synergy between these two groups is genuinely rewarding, as it underscores the importance of collective effort in the field of conservation. Winning the Eureka Prize is an acknowledgment of the shared dedication and the combined impact of this partnership.
Ultimately, accepting the Eureka Prize is not just an individual honour but a collective celebration. We accept this award on behalf of everyone involved in the 1 Million Turtles program, as it symbolises our shared commitment to making a positive and lasting difference in the world of conservation.
The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are the country’s most comprehensive national science awards, honouring excellence across the areas of research & innovation, leadership, science engagement, and school science.