This Six-Foot-Long Softshell Turtle May Narrowly Escape Extinction
Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, Rafetus swinhoei, is currently the rarest freshwater turtle. In China, the species is called the Yangtze giant softshell turtle. Large, green, and speckle-faced, it’s a huge turtle with a relatively tiny head, a hog-like snout, and tiny eyes.
It’s enormous for a freshwater softshell turtle, reaching six feet long and over 370 pounds. Fortunately, this species is elusive and long-lived, surviving for over a century. Although once abundant, humans decimated the species, collecting it for food, polluting, and decimating the lakes and rivers where it lives.
Now, only two specimens are officially confirmed, a male in China and another specimen in Vietnam. Recently, conservationists shared the great news that the turtle in Vietnam is a female, meaning the giant turtle could narrowly escape extinction. However, other promising leads suggest at least two other turtles might remain in the wild.
The Vietnamese Loch Ness Monster
In Vietnam, these giant turtles are considered sacred in the Hoàn Kiếm Lake in central Hanoi. The lake’s name means “returned sword.”
Kids in Vietname learn about a mysterious Golden Turtle living in the lake from an early age.
From Atlas Obscura:
“As the tale goes, a 15th-century landowner known as Lê Lợi gained strength from a heaven-sent blade and drove out the occupying Ming army. Crowned emperor, he later went boating on a lake in present-day Hanoi—but his leisurely trip was interrupted by a large, golden turtle that emerged from the water to retrieve the weapon.
Lê Lợi renamed the lake, today a famous Hanoi landmark, “Hồ Hoàn Kiếm,” or “Lake of the Returned Sword.” The blade was never seen again. But the sacred chelonian, today known as the Hoàn Kiếm turtle or the Golden Turtle, has maintained a curious, high-profile presence in Vietnam.”
Thus, the lake’s turtles have a status akin to a “Vietnamese Loch Ness monster.” Today, a giant Golden Turtle remains an urban myth, with occasional sightings. In 2000, scientists confirmed the lake’s giant turtles were Yangtze giant softshell turtles.
The Great-Grandfather Turtle
Sadly, the lake’s last turtle died on January 19, 2016. It’s passing was seen as a bad omen for the nation.
Known as the Great-Grandfather Turtle, or Cụ Rùa, the turtle was the subject of his own legend. Since people rarely spotted it, many thought the turtle was a myth like a dragon, phoenix, or unicorn.
Then in 2011, as the lake became more polluted, he started appearing more, as if trying to escape.
Then City authorities captured the 440-pound creature and moved it to a filtered section of the lake. After cleaning up the lake, they released it to the lake, but the environment remained toxic. So, the animal revered for good luck, hope, and fortune died. They believed the turtle was 100 years old.
Although the sacred turtle was greatly missed, the lake remained toxic, and the only hope for the species would be in sanctuaries elsewhere.
Now, the Great-Grandfather turtle’s body, which may have actually been a female, remains on display at Ngoc Son Temple at an islet in the lake. Therefore, the legend of the Great-Grandmother Turtle could be more accurate.
Below, you can see the last footage of the Great-Grandfather Turtle in December 2015:
Filmed in the Wild
In March 2016, a former fisherman, Trong van Nguyen, filmed a wild Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle in the Dong Mo Lake near Hanoi. Amazingly, it was the first video of a live specimen in the wild. Later, the Asian Turtle Program announced they might have discovered another individual in a separate Vietnam location.
See the video from the Asian Turtle Program below:
Later, a video from Animal Planet showed conservationists at Dong Mo Lake. A team of researchers captured a young speckled softshell turtle. After taking a sample of toenails and a blood sample, they tested the DNA to see if it was a young Rafetus.
Using a drone, they spotted what appears to be an adult swimming in the lake. Using the video, they hoped to pursue support for conserving the turtle and the environment.
Hopeful Evidence and Conservation Plans
After years of searching in rivers and lakes, the Asian Turtle Program used genetic tools to confirm Swinhoe’s softshell turtles in Dong Mo Lake in 2014. Three years later, they used Environmental DNA (eDNA) testing to confirm the turtles may also be present in nearby Xuan Khanh lake.
Then, in 2019, the Vietnamese government began a turtle conservation program developed with the Asian Turtle Program. Meanwhile, Hanoi officials announced plans to protect the turtles, and not only in the Hoan Kiem lake.
Hopefully, conservationists will be able to protect the remaining Swinhoe’s softshell turtles. However, the challenge will be fraught with challenges. In 2015, one of the last female specimens at the Suzhou Zoo in China died during an artificial insemination attempt.
Over several years, she had produced eggs, but they weren’t viable. Thus, the 100-year old male at the zoo remains one of the last best hopes for the species. However, he is physically unable to breed on his own. Now, scientists hope to successfully inseminate a female from Vietnam.
We hope that these incredible turtles can escape extinction. These giant turtles are a reminder of how irreplaceable and precious each species is. Once they are gone, they will be gone forever, leaving our world less diverse and interesting.
As more species are lost, we lose intricate parts of a complex food chain and put our own species at further risk. Therefore, each extinction is a bad omen for people and our beautiful, interconnected ecosystem.
Featured image: Screenshot via YouTube