A giant turtle living in Vietnam’s Hoan Kiem Lake, which may be one of only four remaining individuals of its species, is being temporarily removed from its habitat in hopes that the animal can be treated for injuries and infection caused by degradation of its watery home. Though the Hoan Kiem turtle itself is unlikely to become part of a breeding program, its popularity and the special place it holds in Vietnamese culture is an important tool for keeping attention focused on turtle conservation. By treating the Hoan Kiem turtle’s wounds and cleaning up its habitat, wildlife rescuers hope to give it an opportunity to live out the rest of its natural lifespan in the lake.
Around the world freshwater turtles are declining at an alarming rate, with 200 out of about 300 known species being at risk of extinction. The Indo-Burma peninsula where Vietnam is located is home to 53 freshwater turtle species, more than can be found in any other region of similar size. Of these, 39 of the peninsula’s freshwater turtles are endangered or threatened due to pressures like habitat destruction, pollution of lakes and streams, and harvesting of turtles and eggs for food or the international pet trade. Thus the turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake can be seen as an ambassador for a much larger assemblage of fascinating and at-risk creatures.
The Hoan Kiem Lake turtle is a 440-pound individual Swinhoe’s softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei). It is one of the largest freshwater turtle species in the world, and the one in Hoan Kiem is thought to be between 80 and 100 years old. Swinhoe’s turtle is perhaps the most endangered reptile species on the planet, with only four living individuals known. In addition to the Hoan Kiem Lake turtle, a single male Swinhoe’s turtle is being monitored in Dong Mo Lake near the Vietnamese city of Hanoi. Two other Swinhoe’s turtles live in captivity in the Suzhou Zoo in China. Though conservationists hope to use these two individuals to start a captive breeding program, they have yet to produce fertile eggs.
Meanwhile the turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake is unlikely to be used for breeding purposes, both because of its great age and the fact that its presence in the lake is highly valued by local people. According to a 15th century legend, a king named Le Loi was sailing a boat on the lake now known as Hoan Kiem, after having defeated an attacking army to the north of Vietnam. The king was approached by a giant turtle, presumably a Swinhoe’s, which instructed him to throw his sacred sword into the water. The story is still told today and the one remaining giant turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake still holds cultural significance. Recently however, the Hoan Kiem turtle has fallen prey to pollution of its freshwater habitat.
During recent sightings, viewers of the Hoan Kiem turtle were alarmed to observe lesions and wounds on the turtle’s body, prompting a rescue effort. This month the turtle was captured by a team of fifty wildlife rescuers, and is now being held in captivity while veterinarians treat its injuries. Though no one knows for sure how the turtle was wounded, many believe litter and abandoned fishing hooks in the lake are to blame. Officials are looking at cleaning up the lake habitat before returning the Hoan Kiem turtle to the wild, and hope the cultural icon can be saved to live out the rest of its natural lifespan.
Though large turtles can live a very long time, the one in Hoan Kiem Lake is already old, and probably has no more than a decade to live at best. Meanwhile hope for survival of Swinhoe’s turtle as a species centers on the individual in Dong Mo Lake. That turtle is younger than the one in Hoan Kiem, and more likely to breed if it can be brought in contact with a female. Conservationists are searching for other surviving individuals, either in Dong Mo or elsewhere in Vietnam. If more can be found a well-organized breeding program might possibly save the species. At the same time, the lone turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake will hopefully continue to inspire awareness of turtle conservation for some years to come.
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/dgmckelvey/5065917751/