Hopes raised for conservation of world’s rarest turtle in Vietnam

Saturday, 2020-08-29 10:50:49
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A photo confirming the existence of a second large softshell turtle (in red circle) in Dong Mo Lake, with the other giant one in the far-right corner. (Photo: Nguyen Van Trong - ATP/IMC)
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NDO – Conservationists have found the trace of another giant Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), also known as a Hoan Kiem Turtle, in Hanoi’s Dong Mo Lake, raising hopes for the conservation of the world’s rarest turtle in Vietnam.

“We are now excited about the prospects of a second animal in Dong Mo Lake which could potentially increase the number of known living Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtles to four individuals, with three in Vietnam and one in China,” read the statement from the Asian Turtle Program (ATP) of Indo-Myanmar Conservation (IMC) – the organisation is sparing no efforts in protecting the critically endangered species in Dong Mo Lake.

The Hoan Kiem Turtle is believed to be almost extinct in the wild. No surviving populations were known until the first wild animal was confirmed in Dong Mo Lake on the outskirts of Hanoi in 2007. It was a long wait until a second animal was confirmed on May 24 of the same year in nearby Xuan Khanh Lake.

Fishermen in Dong Mo Lake have long claimed that a second, smaller individual of the species lived in the lake. One large Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle has regularly been photographed and is the same individual who escaped during a dam break in 2008 which resulted in the rescue and return of the 69kg individual to the lake.

However, in May 2011, staff of the ATP/IMC, who continuously monitor the lake, did see a softshell turtle that appeared to be smaller than the big turtle that is regularly seen. Although some photographs have been captured of this individual in recent years, the images have not been clear, and some doubt remained over if was only one animal being seen or not.

Finally, on August 20, 2020, Nguyen Van Trong, the ATP/IMC local field officer, was able to capture a photo of two large softshell turtles emerging simultaneously. Although they appeared for only a few seconds, he was able to capture some amazing pictures.

The identity of the smaller turtle’s species cannot be confirmed with these photos but, together with previous observations by staff, its size of 40-50kg is a good indication that it might be a Rafetus. (Photo: Nguyen Van Trong - ATP/IMC)

The well-known large individual sits in the foreground weighed in at 69kg in 2008 when captured and could weigh between 100-130kg now in 2020. The second animal is seen not far behind and, although it’s not clear enough to see head markings, this also looks to be a large animal that could be 40-50kg in weight.

“With few other species reaching this size in Vietnam, it gives us good hope that at least two, and possibly more, of these critically endangered Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtles still survive in Dong Mo Lake, although further work is required to confirm this new turtle’s identify,” the ATP/IMC’s statement said.

With a number of other sites already identified by the ATP/IMC in Vietnam, the new findings bring the hope that additional Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtles may be found, giving more options for the future conservation of the world’s rarest turtle species in Vietnam. These new photos will boost monitoring efforts at Dong Mo and will hopefully draw more attention to the species.

The larger well-known individual can be seen clearly in the centre of the image, while the smaller turtle appears behind it in the top left corner. (Photo: Nguyen Van Trong - ATP/IMC)

Living in wetlands, streams and large rivers in northern Vietnam, southern China and possibly Laos, the giant Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle can reach up to 150kg or more in size. It was heavily hunted for food from the 1970’s until the 1990’s and is believed to be almost extinct in the wild.

Only three individuals have been recorded, with two in Vietnam (in Xuan Khanh and Dong Mo Lakes) and one in China.

In January 2016, the only remaining turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of Hanoi, known as Cu Rua (Great-Grandfather Turtle) by Hanoians, was reported dead due to old age. It was believed to have lived for 200 years.

Dong Mo Lake offers hope for the world’s rarest turtle to recover. (Photo: Nguyen Tai Thang - ATP/IMC)

The two turtles in Dong Mo or more may be the only hope of conservation for this species in the world. Therefore, this lake has always been strictly supervised by the authorities and conservation organisations for many years.

The ATP/IMC has partnered with the local authorities and other conservation organisations around the world to implement a conservation action plan for the species since 2003.

ATP/IMC staff have been working hard at Dong Mo for the last 13 years to record sightings and the behaviour of the large individual while working with local communities to promote conservation. (Photo: Nguyen Tai Thang - ATP/IMC)

Nguyen Van Trong grew up on the lake and was a fisherman before picking up a camera and becoming a key part of the field staff protecting the world’s rarest turtle. Photo by: Nguyen Tai Thang (ATP/IMC).