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Discovering a legend in the wild
A team of experts from Cleveland Metroparks Zoo?s Asian Turtle Program (ATP), working in collaboration with Education for Nature ? Vietnam (ENV) in northern Vietnam have discovered the only known living example of Swinhoe?s soft-shell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) in the wild. Swinhoe?s turtle is one of the world?s most critically endangered turtle species. Prior to the discovery, there were only three known turtles of this species remaining; two in zoos in China, and one large turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of Hanoi.
However, after nearly three years of searching lakes and wetlands along the Red River in northern Vietnam, researchers settled upon a lake just west of Hanoi where local people claimed that a gigantic soft-shell turtle was still occasionally seen. In 2007, field biologist Nguyen Xuan Thuan managed to capture a digital photograph of turtle as it basked on the surface, allowing scientists to positively confirm the discovery. Until recently the location and presence of the turtle was kept secret until senior government officials could be briefed and local protection measures could be put in place at the site.
Swinhoe?s soft-shell turtle was first described by Gray in 1873. The species historically occurred in the Red River basin of northern Vietnam, and extended north into southern China, and along the Yangtze River of eastern China. However over the past few decades, the species has all but disappeared from the wild, caught and consumed as food or used to make traditional medicine from its bones. The disappearance of Swinhoe?s turtle may also be influenced by other factors such as loss of nesting habitat along major rivers where the species once resided, pollution, and incidental drowning or injury from fishing nets or boat propellers.
Extensive surveys conducted both in Vietnam and China have revealed stories of monster turtles that existed until recently, and occasionally fishermen have offered bones and skulls, or fragments of turtle carapaces as evidence of earlier decades of hunting. But few if any areas have resulted in encouraging reports that large soft-shell turtles could still be found in the wild until last year when surveys in Ha Tay province confirmed the presence of a single individual.
In addition to its status as the third most critically endangered turtle species, Swinhoe?s turtle has special value to the people of Vietnam. The single large turtle residing in Hanoi?s Hoan Kiem Lake is a living legend.
According to the legend, back in the 15th century, Emperor Le Loi was given a magical sword engraved with the words ?the will of heaven? that had been found in his home province. Le Loi used the sword to defeat and expel the Chinese army from Vietnam, establishing rule in Hanoi over northern Vietnam.
Shortly after his return to Hanoi, Emperor Le Loi was boating on Green Water Lake (Luc Thuy Lake) in the center of Hanoi when a giant turtle rose from the waters, taking Le Loi?s magical sword and disappearing into the murky depths. The lake has since been renamed Hoan Kiem Lake or ?Lake of the Restored Sword?.
Some people believe that the large soft-shell turtle that occupies the lake today, is the very same turtle that retrieved the sword from Emperor Le Loi and returned it to God after his defeat of the Chinese. When the Hoan Kiem turtle surfaces on sunny days and swims about the lake, Hanoi residents often line the banks to catch a glimpse of the legendary turtle, some of which believe that just seeing the turtle will bring good fortune.
While residents hope for good luck, Swinhoe?s turtle balances on the very brink of extinction. The discovery of Swinhoe?s turtle in the wild in Vietnam is an important development in efforts to conserve the species, however without evidence of reproduction, the future of the legendary Hoan Kiem turtle and its three surviving cohorts looks bleak. Hopes are set on finding other turtles that have somehow been overlooked by local hunters or preserved in lakes and wetlands scattered along the Red River and its tributaries while similar efforts continue in China. More importantly, efforts to bring together the male and female adult soft-shell turtles in two Chinese zoos may offer the best chance for the species survival, producing the potential of a new generation for the species, and perhaps an opportunity for the legend to live on.
Other Points of Interest:
? Rafetus swinhoei is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN 2007).
? According to Dr. Peter Pritchard, the world?s leading expert on the species, Rafetus swinhoei reaches lengths of up to about 110 cm and weights of 120-140 kg.
? Comprehensive surveys have been completed along the Red River and its tributaries in northern Vietnam in August 2006. Additional surveys have been carried out in Thanh Hoa, Phu Tho, Yen Bai, Ha Tay, and Hoa Binh provinces where evidence indicates the species was present until recently.
? In January 2007 a field team led by Nguyen Xuan Thuan of the Asian Turtle Program began working at the discovery site west of Hanoi, conducting interviews and trying to confirm the species in the wild through observations. Since then, project activities include a full-time presence at the site, monitoring and patrols, daily meetings with fishermen working on the lake, collection of environmental data, and awareness activities carried out in local communities. Surveys continue at other sites in northern Vietnam.
? In Vietnam, most of the soft-shells that have been captured and killed over the last 20 years were large animals residing in lakes and wetlands that were once probably connected to the Red River during annual flooding, but long ago separated by dykes. Some experts speculate that these lakes may have served as quiet river backwaters for juvenile turtles to rest and feed. Isolated by the construction of dykes, these turtles may have grown up in the lakes, unable to return to the river, find mates, nest, and reproduce. In fact, there are no confirmed reports of nesting in any of the lakes where one or more large animals survived until recently.
? The Asian Turtle Program (ATP) is a program of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. All work in Vietnam is carried out in partnership with Education for Nature- Vietnam (ENV), a local organization established in 2000. Additional funding and support in the form of small grants has been received by the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), Melbourne Zoo, the Turtle Conservation Fund (TCF), the Wade Foundation, and the Bachelor Foundation.
For further information please contact:
Asian Turtle Program
Visit the Asian Turtle Conservation Network website:
The Asian Turtle Program is a consortium of people and institutions dedicated to the protection of Asian turtles in the wild. Support for the Asian Turtle Program is provided by the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, Conservation International, the Turtle Survival Alliance, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Project activities are supported by a range of institutions and private sponsors around the globe