September 2006

Action Plan for the Conservation of
the Giant Yangtze Softshell Rafetus swinhoei

Draft produced at the Rafetus Conservation Workshop,
Suzhou, 20-21 September 2006

Bronze statute of a Rafetus at the West Garden, Suzhou.

The Yangtze giant softshell (Rafetus swinhoei) is arguably the largest freshwater turtle in the world, and the most critically endangered.  Little is known about the species ecology, but it is believed to have inhabited lakes and large river habitats in the lower Yangtze and the Red River, and perhaps in river basins between these two fluvial systems.  Natural populations in China and Vietnam are now believed to be extinct or very close to extinction.  Only five living captive specimens are known, four in China and one in Vietnam.  This workshop was organized by the Office of Aquatic Fauna and Flora Conservation (OAFFC), Ministry of Agriculture, PRC, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the China Zoo Association (CZA) in order to address the extraordinarily urgent need to develop a conservation program for this species in China.

The workshop was held at the Garden Hotel, Suzhou, Jiangsu Province on 20-21 October, 2006.  The list of participants and the agenda are annexed.
In China, living specimens are known from:

  1. The region of the Tai Hu lake in eastern China (N=3), held in captivity in two institutions in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China.
  2. The Red River basin in Yunnan Province, China (N=1) in the Shanghai Zoo. Another Rafetus from this area held in the Beijing Zoo died in 2005. Another specimen from this river basin is in Hoan Kiem Lake in urban Hanoi, Vietnam.

The only location where two Rafetus are held together is the West Garden, a well known Buddhist temple in Suzhou.  However, there have been no reports of successful reproduction of these animals in recent years.  Participants discussed the urgent need to

  1. Develop a captive breeding program
  2. Conduct surveys in areas where wild Rafetus may still remain
  3. Conduct applied research in several important areas, and
  4. Coordination of conservation efforts

Overall Program Coordination by Office of Aquatic Fauna and Flora Conservation, Ministry of Agriculture

Captive Breeding Program (coordination by Zhang Enquan, Beijing Zoo)

  1. Turtles from Shanghai Zoo and Suzhou Zoo are brought together (in Suzhou) (2007).  Priority actions include:
    1. Determine the sex of the individual in the Suzhou Zoo
    2. Creation of a Rafetus captive breeding technical team that will design plans for:
  1. Improvements to Suzhou pool to house turtles and promote reproduction
  2. Seek input from turtle reproductive physiologists on how to get old turtles to start reproducing
  3. Plans for housing and husbandry of animals
  4. Plans for the introduction of the two animals into the same enclosure
  5. Design of egg incubator and agreed upon egg incubation techniques
  6. Design for construction of juvenile rearing pens and husbandry
  7. Detailed plan prepared for how to transport animal with input from international experts with experience in this
  8. Recommendations for diet
  1. Pool modifications completed (2007) (Requires permits?)
  2. Animals captured, measured, sexed and
  1. Health evaluations (ID who will do this)
  2. Tissue sample for genetic work (Chengdu Zoo)
  3. Transport of Shanghai animal to Suzhou and release (Suzhou and Shanghai Zoos)
    1. Technical team assembled to periodically review program in Suzhou Zoo and WG
  1. Facilities at the Western Garden (WG) are modified to provide optimal conditions for reproduction
    1. Rafetus technical team develops detailed plans for
  1. Modifications of WG ponds to improve possibility of nesting
  2. Improved diet of animals and other husbandry concerns
  1. Plan presented to WG council
  2. Goal is for
  1. Immediate diet changes
  2. Creation of a nesting area by May 2007

Search for additional captive individuals (Coordination by CZA)

  1. Guide to identification and clarification of common name (distinguish it from ?Yuen?) to reduce confusion
  1. Canvas zoos, parks-(has been done & is ongoing through CZA Parks-  need to address facilities outside the Association such as Safari Parks-  belong to Forest Bureau or Tourist Bureaus)
    1. Make list of all zoos, parks, Safari Parks, etc  facilities that might keep turtles (do by Province)
    2. Contact each about large softshells
    3. Follow up possible reports

  2. Information to local fisheries offices

Priority areas for surveys

Wild Population Program (Coordination by WCS)

  1. Surveys in Yunnan ? Guizhou/Red River region
    1. Develop proposal by Wen Cheng & Wang Jian (Appendix III)
  2. Surveys in Guangdong and Guangxi
    1. Surveys by Shi Haitao group (Appendix II)
  3. Surveys in Tai Hu region
    1. East China Normal University

    Education Program (Coordination by WCS)

    1. Volume of history & poems on Rafetus?
    2. Publicity campaign for conservation

    Research Program (Coordination by WCS)

    1. Genetic/morphological evaluations of Red River vs Tai Hu animals
    2. Collate historical records on distribution

    Fund raising

    1. International
    2. National
    3. Local (at WG) donations

    Actions of WCS on the Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle:

    In order to implement the action plan developed during the workshop, WCS China program will recruit a full time coordinator working on reptiles in the East China. Current now would cover three species: Chinese Alligator, Yellow-headed Box Turtle and the Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle. But more species may be added in since the situation of turtles in China is extremely endangered due to used as food or TCM.  The coordinator will promote relevant tasks listed in the action plan, especially the wild population survey, looking for more captive bred individuals, public education, design of the breeding centers in Suzhou Zoo and the West Garden.

Activities and budget (in USD)



WCS fund

Other resource


Hire a full time coordinator





WCS Staff travel and operation










Wild population survey in Guangdong and Guangxi




by Shi Haitao from Hainan Normal University

Wild population survey in Yunnan




by Peking University and WCS

Breeding facility modification designing




Coordinated by WCS

Breeding facility modification in Suzhou Zoo




Coordinated by Beijing Zoo

Breeding facility modification in West Garden




Coordinated by West Garden






Appendix I: Attach List of Participants
Lishu please add in the participant list.

Appendix II: Wild Population Proposal 1

Project Title: Surveys for potentially remaining wild individuals of Rafetus swinhoei in Guangdong and Guangxi Province, South China

Region of project: Guangdong and Guangxi Province, South China
Project start and end dates: From January 2007 to December 2008
Applicant name: Haitao Shi
Address: Department of Biology, Hainan Normal University, South Longkun Road?No.99?571158, Haikou, Hainan Province, P.R.China.
Email: [email protected]
Institutional affiliation: Professor of Department of Biology, Hainan Normal University.

Project background
Yangtze giant softshell ( Rafetus swinhoei) distributed widely along Taihu and Red River drainage area historically(Zaho,1998; Zhang, et al., 1998). There are only six living specimens of the species known to exist in 2004. Five were in China including one in the Beijing Zoo, one in the Shanghai Zoo, one in the Suzhou Zoo, and two in the Western Gardens of a temple in Suzhou. The sixth living Rafetus is in Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of Hanoi, Vietnam.
One of the issues that were addressed at a symposium on the 'Ecology and Conservation of Asia's Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises", held on 26 August 2004 at the XIXth International Congress of Zoology in Beijing, China, was the conservation of the large Chinese softshell turtles, particularly the Yangtze giant softshell, Rafetus swinhoei. An overview of the history of the species and conservation status of the Yangtze giant softshell was presented by Dr. Peter Pritchard, Director of  the Chelonian Research Institute. The extremely critical status of this remarkable species was discussed and an informal working group was established to promote conservation action. The main points that came out of the presentations and discussion were: The Yangtze giant softshell is arguably the largest freshwater turtle in the world; The Yangtze giant softshell is perhaps the most critically endangered turtle in the world; The status in the wild in China and Vietnam is unknown but is either extinct or very close to extinction. The discussion emphasized the need for immediate conservation action and a specialized Rafetus Conservation Workshop.
A specialized Rafetus Conservation Workshop first concentrate on saving of the species and construction of a feasibility study and action plan was hold on 20 September 2006 in Suzhou, China. One specimen in Beijing Zoo has died after Beijing workshop and before Suzhou workshop, that is one out of six specimen has died before we implement any substantial action and adopt any effective measures. This makes all relevant experts those concern about the fate of this species feel fear. An action Plan for saving Rafetus swinhoei was drafted quickly by all participants include government officials and turtle specialists from different counties in Suzhou workshop, it includes mainly two aspects which captive breeding and search for remnant wild population.
The gender of the residual 5 specimen are still unknown, their age are old and no reproductive experience for many years, they are hold by different organizations and is not very easy to get them together. Therefore it is still highly uncertain if the species can be preserved through captive breeding of the remnant five specimens. So search for remnant wild population become very necessary and imperative.
The task of ?Search for wild population? will be conducted in Yunnan ? Guizhou/Red River region, Guangdong-Guangxi region and Tai Hu region. This proposal is about the surveys in Guangdong-Guangxi region.
Although no definite historical records that Rafetus swinhoei occurs in Guangdong-Guangxi region, there are some causes show this region is worthwhile to be surveyed. One cause is a huge gap between the definitely recorded two regions Red River and Tai Hu. Guangdong-Guangxi region locates the middle place of them where the climate and habitat is befitting to this species. In general speaking, the distribution range of one species is relatively continuous, and no specialized and systematic surveys have been conducted historically in this region, therefore no powerful evidence to prove its not exist in this region . The another cause is the systematics of this family has been confused and the validity of this species has not been accepted widely until nowadays. Especially their folk name have been confused all the time, for example these four species Pelochelys cantorii, Rafetus swinhoei, Palea steindachneri andPelodiscus sinensis are all called ?Tuanyu? which means round fish in the folk. Pelochelys cantorii, Rafetus swinhoei, Palea steindachnerihave been called ?Yuan?(???i.e. Pelochelys) from the ancient time. Therefore this species has been mistaken for Pelochelys cantori, and it is possible that its baby can be mistaken for Palea steindachneri,Pelodiscus sinensis and Pelochelys cantori. The third cause is people in this region are like most to rear or keep turtle in their house, the trade and artificial breeding of different species of turtles from different regions and countries is the commonest in the region in China, therefore it is possible to find remnant individuals in turtle farms or in some villager?s house, or get some of useful information about this species. The fourth cause is it is valuable to obtain some information about Pelochelys cantori and Palea steindachneri which are also very rare softshell species. The fifth cause is our widely survey combine conservation education will enhance the conservation awareness in this very important area to turtles in China.

Project Contents and methodology: To survey mainly Zhujiang drainage area in Guangdong Province, include Xijiang, Dongjiang, Beijiang and Delta drainage area; Liangjiang drainage area in Guangxi Province, include Hongshuihe, Yujiang and Liujiang drainage area. To visit the local officials of forest and aquaculture, traders, fishermen and hunters. To survey the aquafarm and turtle farm. To conduct intensive survey when any valuable clues have been found. To report confirmed and valuable clues if available to Wildlife Conservation Society, and discuss to adopt further measures. To collect relevant references of  Pelochelys cantorii, Palea steindachneri andPelodiscus sinensis in Guangdong-Guangxi region and hydrological map before survey will be implemented. To prepare a series of pictures of softshell turtles and relevant educational materials so as to exhibit to visited people for the aim of identification and education.     

Project Budget: 6500 USD in total
Travel__ 2200USD: Air tickets of two people two times from Haikou to Guangdong and Guangxi, rent four-wheel car and boat for about 30 days in total.
Accommodation__1800USD: 20USD for each person per day, three people in total.
Salary__900USD: 10USD for each person per day, three people in total.
Miscellaneous__1600USD: souvenirs for people visited; identification and educational pictures and brochures; necessary entertainments to local officials, local traders, fishermen, hunters and turtle farmers whom will be visited or need to serve as guide; batteries, flashlights, postage and communication costs etc..

Applicant?s Publications: 83 publications in total, the follow list is mainly relevant with turtle, education and this project:
Shi Haitao?James F.Parham, W.Brian Simison, Jichao wang, Shiping Gong and  Binglong Fu. A report on the hybridization between two species of the threatened Asian box turtle ?Testudines?Cuora ?in the wild on Hainan Island?China? with comments on the origin of ?serrata?-like turtles. Amphibia Reptilia. 2005?26??377-381.
Shi H. T. . The Fate of a Wild Caught Golden Coin Turtle (Cuora trifasciata) on Hainan Island, China. Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter. 2006(9):15-17.
Shi Haitao, D.O?Connell, J. .Parham and Kevin Buley. An action plan for turtle conservation in China. Proceedings of the EAZA conference, Kolmarden, Sweden, 2005: 47-57.
Shi Haitao. Distribution of the Black-Breasted Leaf Turtle (Geoemyda spengleri) on Hainan Island, China. Chelonian Conservation and Biology, 2005, 4(4):952?954.
Shi Haitao, Fan Zhiyong,, and Zhigang Yuan. New data on the trade and captive breeding of turtles in Guangxi Province, South China. Asiatic Herpetological Research .2004(10):126-128.
Shi Haitao. Observations of Wildlife Trade in Wenchang City, Hainan Island, China. Turtle and tortoise Newsletter.2004 (4): 12-13.
Shi Haitao, 2002. The riddle of Four Eye-spotted Turtle. Journal of Man and Biosphere,(4):16-19.
Shi Haitao,2002. Results of Turtle Market Surveys in Chengdu and Kunmin.Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Newsletter, (6):15-16.
Shi Haitao & James Parham. Preliminary observations of a large turtle farm in Hainan Province, P.R.C. Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter. 2001(3):26-29.
Shi Haitao. The Research and Conservation of the Turtle and Tortoises in Hainan Island. Proceedings of the international workshop on the migration, foraging habitats and nesting ecology of marine turtles in  Taiwan. 2000: 72-74.
Shi Haitao. Studies on the Ecology of the Four-eyed Turtle, Sacalia quadriocellata, on Hainan Island.  Fourth Asian Herpetological Conference(Abstract). 2000:143.
Shi Haitao, Hongyi Zhang, Qiang Liu, Shihang Fu. Ecology education should be thought as an important strategy task of construction of Hainan Eco-province. Edited in the proceedings of the first Hainan provincial science and technology forum.South China Press,2000.10?355-358.
Shi Haitao, 1999. Status on the Conservation of Sea Turtles in Hainan Island. Bulletin on APEC Marine Resources Conservation, Vol I, Issue 4:15.
Shi Hai-tao,1998. Studies on ecology of Testudo horsfieldi and status of its conservation.Sinchuan Journal of Zoology (2):65-71.
Shi Hai-tao, Xu She-ke et al.1997.Preliminary studies on the population dynamics and population structure of Testudo horsfieldi. Acta Herpetologica Sinica (6-7): 133-138.
Shi Hai-tao, Xu She-ke et al.1997.Studies on habitat selection and food habits of Testudo horsfieldi.Chinese  Chelonian Research, 127-132.
Shi Hai-tao, Xu She-ke, et al.1995.Activity rhythm of Testudo horfieldi. Chinese Journal of Zoology, (4):40-45.
Shi Haitao. 2006. The fate of a wild caught golden coin turtle (Cuora trifasciata) on Hainan Island, China. Turtle and Tortoise Newsletter, In Press.
Shi Haitao. 2004.  Turtles of China. Bulletin of  Biology, 39(5), 13?16.
Shi Haitao. 2004.  Asian turtles_ the longevous endangered  species. Life World, (5)?46-50.
Gong Shiping, Wang Jichao, Shi Haitao, Song Riheng, Xu Rumei. Illegal trade and conservation requirements of freshwater turtles in Nanmao, Hainan Province, China. Oryx, 2006,40(3):331-336.
Gong Shiping, Shi Haitao, Xie Caijian, Chen Chuan and Xu Rumei. 2005. Spring habitat selection by Four Eye-spotted Turtle (Sacalia quadriocellata) in Limu Mountain of Hainan Island. Zoological Research, Vol.26 No.2 P.142-146.
Gong Shiping, Youli Fu, Jichao Wang, Haitao Shi, Rumei Xu. 2005. Freshwater turtle trade in Hainan and suggestions for effective management. Biodiversity Science, 13 (3): 239?247.
Gong SP, Xu RM, Shi HT. 2003. Zoogeography and conservation priority of hard-shelled freshwater turtles on Hainan sland.      
Chinese Journal of Zoology, 38(6): 68-71.
Michael Lau & Shi Haitao. Conservation and trade of Terrestrial and Freshwater Turtles and  Tortoises in the People's Republic of China.Chelonian Research Monographs, 2000 (2): 30-38.
Parham, J.F.,  W.Brian Simison,Kenneth H.Kozak,Chris R.Feldman and Haitao Shi. New Chinese turtle:endangered or invalid? A research of two species using mitochondrial DNA, allozyme  electrophoresis and known-locality specimens. Animal Conservation. 2001(4)357-367.
Parham, J.F.  and Haitao Shi.. The discovery of Mauremys iversoni at a turtle farm in Hainan. Asiatic Herpetological Research. 2001(9): 71-76.
Song. X, H.Jiang, F.Zou and H. Shi, 2002. Current status of amphibians and reptiles in Hainan Island,China.Herpetologica Sinica?(9)?69-79.

Appendix III: Wild Population Proposal 2

Project Title: Investigation to Rafetus swinhoei in Honghe River watershed and adjoining area in Yunnan, China

Project background
Yangtze giant softshell ( Rafetus swinhoei) is one of the most endangered softshell species over the world, which is listed as Regional Extinct (RE) in China Species Red List and Critically Endangered(CR) in IUCN Red List. It previously distributed in Taihu Lake region near Shanghai, Honghe River watershed in Yunnan Province of China and northern Vietnam last early century. However, there has no any record of this species from wild for about 50 years in China and almost without any information or reference of field research to it. In northern Vietnam, the survey to this turtle were carried out in 2005 and 2006, but also with no confirmed proof of living Rafetus. The only known individuals are 5 old, very large adults in captivity in Shanghai, Suzhou, and one in Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam. Definitely, the species is on the very brink of extinction.
To save the rare species, a workshop was hold by WCS China on Sept. 20, 2006 in Suzhou, in which the participants discussed the conservation issue on Rafetus with two outcomes. One is to initiate the captive reproducing within the 4 domestic individuals in China, but the result is unclear because of the old age of these 4 animals. The other is restart the field survey in the original distributions. It is with a possibility that some unknown individual still survive in field. This proposal is to strive to find living Rafetus in Honghe River watershed which is the original distribution of the animal. 

Project area:
Since the heavy pollution and economic development around Taihu Lake, it is absolutely sure that no living Rafetus could be found there at present. Upper reach of Honghe River, the original distribution of this animal, is located in southern Yunnan, which is remote mountain and undeveloped area. The human being population is still increasing in this area, but part of this area is not easily accessible due to the lag construction of the road. Based on the informant, we select Honghe, Jiangcheng, Hekou County of Honghe Prefecture and Zhengyuan, Mojiang County of Simao District as the project area, with three main tributaries here, Babian river, Amo river and Nanxi river.
Time and method:
We plan to conduct the survey in the target area from Feb. 10 ? 20, 2007. Because of the nocturnal habit of Rafetus and difficult access to the habitat, we couldn?t spend too time to investigate in field. We have made a plan to investigate the local fishery market, making clear of the current composition of fishery; visit the local government officials and local people to collect the clue of Rafetus and other large softshell in recent years. If any information could be available, then further plan should be made out for next step.
Day 1.  Beijing ? Kunming
Day 2- 5 Kunming to Honghe Prefecture, then make the survey in Honghe and Hekou County.
Day 6- 10 Honghe to Simao District, then make the survey in Jiangcheng, Mojiang and Zhengyuan County.
Day 11 Simao to Kunming
Day 12 Kunming to Beijing      

Project Budget:



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Equivalent to USD