Was Vietnamese national symbol
HANOI, Vietnam––Cu Rua, probably the most famous turtle in the world and perhaps the oldest, was found dead in Hoan Kiem Lake in central Hanoi during the third week of January 2016.
“A mythic symbol of Vietnamese independence and longevity who had quietly paddled around Hanoi’s central lake for decades,” wrote Mike Ives for The New York Times, Cu Rua, meaning Great-Grandfather Turtle, “weighed an estimated 360 pounds,” with a shell six feet long by four feet wide, “and was believed to have died of natural causes. His precise age was unknown.”
Assessed Ives, “It would be difficult to overstate his spiritual and cultural significance in this deeply superstitious and Confucian country, where the news of the turtle’s demise prompted an outpouring of sadness and hand-wringing. The timing, as a Communist Party congress opened to choose Vietnam’s top leaders for the next five years, was widely interpreted as a bad omen for both the party and the nation.
“Cu Rua’s death was a loss for biological history as well,” Ives added. “He was one of the last of the Yangtze giant softshell turtles, species Rafetus swinhoei, which now has just three known specimens, two in China and one in a lake outside Hanoi.”
The Cu Rua legend
Cu Rua was believed by herpetologists to have been close to 100 years old. But regardless of actual age, Cu Rua was widely believed to have inhabited Hoan Kiem Lake for 550 to 600 years.
“The story goes,” San Jose Mercury News Vietnam bureau chief Mark McDonald wrote in 1998, “that Le Loi, a warrior king, used a heaven-sent sword to hold off Chinese invaders back in the mid-1400s. After the final battle, as Le Loi was boating in Hanoi, his sword leaped from its scabbard into the mouth of a turtle. The turtle plunged underwater with the sword, and the lake has been known as Ho Hoan Kiem ever since, which translates, ‘The Lake of the Returned Sword.’”
Verified sightings began in 1991
The lake is only the size of two football fields, is almost entirely surrounded by concrete, and is just seven feet deep, not counting bottom muck. But serious scientific investigation of the Cu Rua legend began after a giant turtle was seen there 38 times in three years, beginning in 1991, and was photographed on several occasions.
Three divers in early 1993 claimed to have found no trace of a turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake, in four hours of searching. Nonetheless, at request of turtle expert Ha Dinh Duc of Hanoi National University, then-Vietnamese prime minister Vo Van Kiet personally intervened to prevent Hoan Kiem Lake from being dredged.
Rumors of illness
Rumors that Cu Rua might be ill in early 2011 brought hundreds of volunteers to help clean up Hoan Kiem Lake. The lake at the time was contaminated with “everything from bricks and concrete to plastic bags and raw sewage,” reported Tran Van Minh Ha for Associated Press.
At urging of Ha Dinh Duc, Cu Rua was netted on April 3, 2011, after breaking loose from a previous netting attempt, “to take skin and shell samples for analysis, and determine how to treat” Cu Rua for whatever afflicted him.
“Photos reveal scars and pink open sores on his head and legs. A white fungus-like material also covers a large section of his shell, which also has lesions,” Tran Van Minh Ha recounted.
Lived five more years
The capture was against the advice of Douglas Hendrie, a 14-year resident of Vietnam, a technical adviser for the nonprofit Education for Nature Vietnam, and founder of the Asian Turtle Program.
“Every couple years here in Hanoi, people start saying the Hoan Kiem turtle is sick,” Hendrie told Tran Van Minh Ha. “I wouldn’t panic yet,” because Cu Rua’s behavior had not significantly changed.
Released back into Hoan Kiem Lake in June 2011, Cu Rua continued to surface on warm days, and to eat normally,” as he did until found dead nearly five years later.