In 2019, the world’s rarest turtle suffered a staggering loss. The last known female of the species, Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, died after an artificial insemination process in the Chinese zoo where she and her partner lived. This left the confirmed number for the species in only two individuals: the male in China plus an individual of unknown sex in a lake in Vietnam.
There may still be hope for the species. Conservationists and veterinarians recently announced that the Vietnamese tortoise is a woman. At the same time, extensive hunts for other surviving swinhoe softshell turtles in Vietnam have confirmed at least two other promising leads.
“This is very big news in Vietnam,” said Hoang Bich Thuy, country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Even people who don’t work in conservation, my friends and family, saw it on national television and said, ‘Oh! There is new hope! ‘”
Swinhoe’s softshell turtles, which can weigh over 370 pounds, are over 6 feet long, and live for over 100 years, have special cultural significance in Vietnam, where they are known as the Hoan Kiem – “returned sword” turtles. In the 15th century, according to a popular tale, the Vietnamese King Le Loi used a magical sword to defeat the army of the Ming Dynasty. When the battle was over, the king gave the sword to a turtle god in Hoan Kiem Lake in central Hanoi.
In the last few decades when Vietnam was urbanized, a Hoan Kiem turtle continued to live in the lake despite high levels of pollution. But in 2016 that last person – a revered man known as a great-grandfather-turtle – probably died of natural causes.
However, the sacred status of the Swinhoe softshell turtles living in Lake Hoan Kiem did not extend to members of the same species living elsewhere in Vietnam. The species has been heavily hunted for food and has been hit by habitat destruction.
In 2003, Tim McCormack, director of the Asian Turtle Program, began studying rivers where the species historically lived. He put a few clams in people’s homes, and most fishermen told him that the once-rich animal was gone. Finding it in China, where the species is commonly known as the Yangtze River Giant Softshell Turtle, was also daunting.
Mr McCormack and his colleagues finally took a break in 2007 when a team member managed to get a photo of a swinhoe softshell turtle that was discovered in Dong Mo Lake, an area west of Hanoi. They hired fishermen to keep an eye on the turtle and continued to work on habitat improvements, community awareness and further surveys to find additional softshell turtles from Swinhoe. In 2014, they used genetic tools to confirm the turtle was a member of the species.
When Nguyen Tai Thang, project manager for the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle at the Asian Turtle Program, received news of a likely second animal in Vietnam, “it’s hard to describe my overwhelmed feelings.” “It was like an endless expedition, and at some point you wonder if you are on the right track, and then you finally see a sign that shows that you will soon reach your destination shortly before your destination.”
Other giant turtles have also been spotted living in the same lake as the female swinhoe’s soft shell turtle. However, there was no evidence of reproduction, which could mean the other turtle is also female. On the other hand, it could also be that the animal is an exotic species that found its way into the lake.
Although the identities of the Xuan Khanh and the second Dong Mo turtle need to be confirmed, the hope of a second or even a third swinhoe softshell turtle drives political and scientific interest. In 2019, the Vietnamese government released a turtle protection action plan developed under the Asian Turtle Program. Hanoi authorities announced an additional plan to protect members of the species found throughout the city’s jurisdiction – not just in Hoan Kiem Lake.
“The confirmation of the female Hoan Kiem tortoise brought us new hope to restore the population of this most precious and critically endangered species of tortoise,” said Nguyen Huy Dang, deputy director of the Hanoi Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Last October, government officials, conservationists and fishermen caught the Swinhoe softshell turtle, first discovered in 2007, and used ultrasound to check that it was female. The next step, Mr McCormack said, is to record the other two people in order to identify them and determine their gender. This will likely happen in spring when the water level is lower and the reptiles become more active. If they do find a male, they plan to mate him with the female, probably in a semi-wild enclosure on Dong Mo Lake.
Talks are also being held about mating the Vietnamese woman with the Chinese man, said Gerald Kuchling, a project leader for the Turtle Survival Alliance who helped with the species breeding effort in China. Scientists had previously learned that the Chinese man’s penis was badly damaged, but this prevents him from successfully delivering sperm to a woman. That said, there is little point in bringing the two animals together – something that Dr. Kuchling would be a challenge anyway for political reasons. Instead, sperm could be collected from the male in China and transported to Vietnam for artificial insemination.
“Even if a male becomes available in Vietnam, engaging the Chinese male through an artificial approach will still be important in expanding the gene pool for long-term genetic health and survival of the species,” said Dr. Kuchling. “However, if no other man can be found, this approach is the last chance and essential.”
From their surveys in North Vietnam, Mr. McCormack, Mr. Nguyen and their colleagues have identified a handful of additional places that they believe other Swinhoe softshell turtles may be still alive. “I was born in a small village on the Red River where there used to be a lot of individuals like this,” said Nguyen. “My friends and I gathered in the village temple to hear stories of the species that elders told us.”
Finding more animals in the wild will not only ensure the conservation of the species, he said, but also that “the legend lives on”.