World’s most endangered turtle finds new hope in Vietnam

Tuesday, 2020-12-22 17:26:01
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The turtle was photographed before being released back to the lake. (Photo credit: ATP/IMC)
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NDO – Scientists have released genetic results confirming a female turtle captured in October 2020 in Vietnam is definitively the near-extinct Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) – also known as the Hoan Kiem Turtle, raising hopes for the conservation of the world’s rarest turtle in Vietnam.

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The Hanoi Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, in collaboration with the Asian Turtle Program (ATP) of Indo-Myanmar Conservation (IMC) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have made dramatic progress to possibly prevent the extinction of the Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle.

At a Hanoi workshop last week, scientists revealed that genetic testing has confirmed a female turtle captured last October in Dong Mo Lake in suburban Hanoi is definitively a Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle.

This confirmation means that in addition to the one known male Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle at Suzhou Zoo in China, there is now the female captured in Dong Mo Lake.

Authorities believe there is at least one more of these turtles in Dong Mo Lake and yet another in nearby Xuan Khanh Lake. Conservationists hope to at least to capture and determine the sex of the turtle in both Dong Mo and Xuan Khanh Lakes this coming spring.

The mission team photographed with the giant turtle captured in October 2020. (Photo credit: ATP/IMC)

Ultimately, conservationists aim to ensure at least one male and female are given a chance to breed to ensure this species can return from the brink of extinction.

Nguyen Huy Dang, Deputy Director of Hanoi Department of Agriculture and Rural Development said: “This is a very important mission and it needs to be done effectively. We have been seeking advice and consultation from the Hanoi People’s Committee to promulgate guiding documents and to collaborate with international organisations to execute our development and conservation plan of rafetus swinhoei. Hanoi Department of Fisheries has been assigned to continue implementing the Plan #200 from the Hanoi People’s Committee to revive and preserve the Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle, a rare, precious and endangered species listed in Vietnam’s Red Data Book and the IUCN Red List.”

The team took measurements of the animal. (Photo credit: ATP/IMC)

Timothy McCormack, Programme Director of the ATP/IMC said: “It is so important that we are taking these steps, confirming the sex of the identified animals, and in the case of the animal in Xuan Khanh Lake confirming the species, as currently this has only been based on Environmental DNA. Once we know the sex of the animals in Vietnam, we can make a clear plan on the next steps, hopefully we have a male and a female, in which case breeding and recovery of the species becomes a real possibility. At the same time, our surveys in other areas of Vietnam suggest other animals might still survive in the wild, we need to be looking at bringing these together as part of the broader conservation plan for the species.”

WCS Vietnam Country Director Hoang Bich Thuy said: “In a year full of bad news and sadness across the globe, the discovery of this female can offer all some hope that this species will be given another chance to survive. In Vietnam, with the leadership of the government, we are determined to take responsibility to give this species another chance.”

A closer look at the rare turtle. (Photo credit: WCS Vietnam)

Andrew Walde, Chief Operating Officer of the Turtle Survival Alliance, a technical advisor on this project, said: “This is the best news of the year, and quite possibly the last decade, for global turtle conservation. As the most endangered turtle on Earth, a tremendous amount of energy and resources have been dedicated to the preservation of the Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle. Following the loss of the only known female at the time in 2019, the confirmation of this wild specimen as female is a cause for celebration for all those who have worked tirelessly to see this turtle species survive.”

Prior to this discovery, there had been a major effort to breed the remaining two known animals of the species. Then, the last known female Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle died on April 13, 2019, during recovery from anaesthesia after an artificial insemination procedure in Suzhou, China. The male and female turtles, which had failed to produce offspring naturally after they were brought together in 2008, were determined to be healthy for the procedure, and similar anaesthesia procedures had previously been performed without incident. When the female died, the hopes for the species turned to the possibility of additional turtles in two different lakes in Vietnam, Dong Mo and Xuan Khanh.

Since early 2019, with technical support from the ATP/IMC and WCS, Hanoi Fisheries Department had organised various consultation and review meetings to develop a technical approach for the discovery and capture, while conducting more surveys of Dong Mo Lake and selecting trapping locations.

The plan was delayed due to COVID-19 until September 2020 when a team returned to the field, including local fishermen, the Hanoi Fisheries Department and the ATP/IMC and WCS personnel.

The animal was fitted with a PIT tag device before being released to the lake. (Photo credit: ATP/IMC)

They spent weeks putting out a series of nets to create a trapping zone, making sure that from the 1,400 ha lake, the turtle could be observed in a fenced-in 90 ha capture zone. On October 22, an animal was seen next to the net fence and a quick-thinking team member was able to capture the animal with the help of a local fisherman.

With the close coordination and technical support from the capture and animal care teams, on October 23, a health check was done, samples were taken, an ultrasound was performed and a physical check was recorded. The animal weighed in at 86kg and 1m in length. An identification microchip was implanted, while swabs and blood samples were taken for a future conservation plan. She was healthy, strong and keen to get back in the lake where she was released on the same day.

Ultrasound was performed, which helped confirm the animal's sex. (Photo credit: ATP/IMC)

A comparison of head markings from the animal captured in October 2020 against those of a large Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle rescued and released back into Dong Mo Lake in November 2008 indicate that it is the same animal.

With sightings of a second animal in Dong Mo Lake, additional work started at the end of November with the capture team which then did simulation exercises on different trapping methods. It is hoped the second animal can be captured and confirmed at the lake in spring 2021 when the water level is at the lowest.

The team is hopeful the second animal is also a Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle and a male, giving even more hope that the world’s rarest species can mate and produce offspring in either a semi-wild area or captivity in Vietnam.

The second Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle discovered on Dong Mo Lake. (Photo credit: WCS Vietnam)