Five years after the “last” giant softshell turtle died, one and possibly three more turn up, plus one in zoo
HANOI, Vietnam––Five years after the January 2016 death of Cu Rua in Hoan Kiem Lake plunged Vietnam into national mourning for the legendary giant softshell turtle, then believed to have been the last of his species in the wild, 2021 could scarcely have opened on a more hopeful note, both for Vietnam and for turtle enthusiasts worldwide.
Cu Rua was posthumously confirmed to have been a Yangtze giant softshell turtle, as he had been believed to be for several years. The Yangtse giant softshell turtle species is scientifically named Rafetus swinhoei, after the 19th century British naturalist and diplomat Robert Swinhoe.
Relicts of the Cretacious era
Swinhoe formally identified the species from a specimen captured in the Yangtse River, which winds through southern China, never closer to Hanoi than about 500 miles north, and not linked to Ho Hoan Kiem Lake by any waterways.
Swinhoe shipped his specimen to the British Museum, where it remains, when he returned to Britain in 1873.
Rafetus swinhoei was subsequently hunted and poached out of existence in the wild.
A male and a female, however, lived on in captivity China. They were brought together at the Suzhou Zoo in 2008.
Captive breeding @#$%ed up
Discovering that Cu Rua was a Yangtze giant softshell turtle meant that his species was not yet extinct––not quite. But increasingly frantic efforts to encourage the Suzhou Zoo giant softshell turtles to breed failed with catastrophic seeming finality in April 2019, when the last female died under sedation during an artificial insemination attempt.
Rafetus swinhoei, ironically, had outlived Yutyrannus Huali, the biggest of many Chinese cousins of Tyrannosaurus Rex, but could not survive sex managed by scientists.
Rumors persisted, however, that big softshell turtles remained in the wild.
In February 2019, while the Suzhou Zoo artificial insemination attempt was in planning, an eight-member team including Turtle Survival Alliance executives Andrew Walde and Clinton Doak, Brett Baldwin from the San Diego Zoo, and four Asian Turtle Program staff members visually confirmed the apparent presence of at least one Rafetus swinhoei in Dong Mo Lake, a much larger lake than Ho Hoan Kiem Lake, located about twenty miles to the northwest.
“Over the course of a half-hour, the Dong Mo Rafetus swinhoei was sighted five times,” Doak wrote afterward.
The death of the female in China stimulated efforts to capture physical confirmation of the continued existence of Rafetus swinhoei in Dong Mo Lake.
Which meant capturing the turtle herself.
The effort succeeded on October 22, 2020. The turtle weighed in at just under 170 pounds.
DNA confirms species & gender
Reported Nick Allen for Science on January 1, 2021, “Genetic testing has confirmed that an animal found in Dong Mo Lake in Vietnam in October is a female of the same species – Rafetus swinhoei – which is also known as the.Yangtse giant softshell turtle.”
Said Hoang Bich Thuy of the Vietnamese field branch of Wildlife Conservation Society, “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 addition to that turtle, the capture team believes “There may be one more Swinhoe’s turtle there,” in Dong Mo Lake, “and potentially another,” in nearby Xuan Khanh lake, indicated by DNA found in water samples.
“In spring 2021,” wrote Allen, “the team hopes to capture the second, larger, turtle seen in the same lake, as this is when the water level is lowest.”
One male may survive in Dong Mo Lake, as well
The second Swinhoe’s turtle believed to remain in Dong Mo Lake is estimated to weigh about 260 pounds, and may be a male.
“Once we know the sex of the animals in Vietnam, we can make a clear plan on the next steps,” Asian Turtle Program of Indo-Myanmar Conservation Program director
Timothy McCormack said.
“Hopefully,” McCormack added, “we have a male and a female, in which case breeding and recovery of the species becomes a real possibility. We need to be looking at bringing these [turtles] together as part of the broader conservation plan for the species.”
That might, however, be better achieved by returning the Suzhou Zoo captive Yangtse giant turtle to the wild, than by repeating 11 years of failed captive breeding experiments.
Cu Rua becomes tourist attraction
Cu Rua, probably the most famous turtle in the world and perhaps the oldest, now preserved in plastic as a tourist attraction, 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,” 2016-2021, “was widely interpreted as a bad omen for both the party and the nation.”
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.