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Action needed to protect the world’s most endangered turtles only wild habitat

Dong Mo Lake just outside of Hanoi, northern Vietnam, looks similar to many other lowland lakes. With a high human population living in around the lake and using it daily for fishing and to support local agriculture. But the lake is special in that it supports the only known wild population of the worlds rarest turtle species. The critically endangered Swinhoe’s softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) was confirmed at the lake by the Asian Turtle Program (ATP) of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in 2007, when a single wild animal was photographed. This discovery brought the known global population for the species to just four animals. With hunting and habitat loss resulting in the disappearance of the species throughout most of its historic range in southern China and northern Vietnam. The species has special significance in Vietnam as it’s the same species that occurs in Hanoi’s famous Hoan Kiem Lake where a legend relates to the 15th century when a giant turtle took a magical sword from the Vietnamese emperor King Le Loi.

Following the discovery a conservation team was established for the species at the site, this proved a wise decision when in November 2008 the turtle escaped after flooding broke a dam under construction. A large 69kg Rafetus swinhoei escaped and was subsequently caught by local fishermen, believed to be the same animal photographed in the wild. Fortunately swift action by the local counterpart and ATP team enabled the local NGO, Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV), and local authorities to successful rescue and return the animal too the lake. Following this almost disastrous incident a new, much large dam has been under construction. With four floodgates this dam is less turtle friendly than the previous dam and means when the gates are open water will flow under the gates making it difficult to prevent future escapes.

A temporary fence spanning the 60m wide and 7-meter deep inlet to the dam has been put in place by the ATP to provide a barrier preventing escape if the dam is opened. But during the wet season of 2011 the water level of Dong Mo rose to a point where in August water was passing over this temporary protection. Fortunately the dam gates were not opened on this occasion but it is just a matter of time before it becomes a serious risk to the critically threatened inhabitants of the lake.

Efforts have been made since 2010 to have a permanent solution found to the problem. The construction of a fence being the most realistic option. Meetings with the Fisheries Department of Ha Noi who manage fishery resources in the lake and the Phu Sa Construction Company who built and manage the dam have been held. At meetings focused on the famous Hoan Kiem Turtle of the same species in central Hanoi the risk facing the Dong Mo population have also been highlighted to national authorities but as of yet no decisions have been made. Reporters have covered the threat while individuals such as Prof. Mai Dinh Yen, the chairman of the Ecological Society of Vietnam, are now working hard for conservation of the species. A proposal has been drafted for the establishment of a conservation area at Dong Mo Lake. Providing some security at the dam would be an important component of any conservation plan developed.

Considering the critical importance of this species both in terms of conservation and cultural value it seems remarkable that such a visible threat to the species has been left. The responsibility of construction on the lake and so protection of the turtle is that of Hanoi People’s Committee and should be considered critical to keeping the species and legend alive. We hope the decision is made and protection provided for this important species at its only known wild habitat before its too late.

Press Release by: Timothy McCormack – Asian Turtle Program (ATP)

19th January 2012

Download this press release PDF here: English pdf

dong mo new dam

Above: In August 2011 small volumes of water were released from the dam but it poses a threat to Rafetus swinhoei in the lake when fully opened.


Rafetus swinhoei in the wild

Above: The Dong Mo Rafetus swinhoei seen photographed basking in December 2010


temporary net

Above: A temporary net has been put in place before the dam but its feared when dam gates are opened the turtles could be lost


Rafetus swinhoei rescued 2008

The Dong Mo Rafetus swinhoei was caught after the dam on the lake broke in November 2008

dong mo lake new dam

The new dam has four large gates to release water, opening at the bottom the flow of water will be attractive to the large softshell turtles.


Thank you:


We would like to thank all those who have supported our work and the Rafetus swinhoei Project. The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), Birdlife International, Columbus Zoo and the Turtle Conservation Fund (TCF). As well as local partners and agencies, Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV), the Forest Protection Department (FPD) and the People's Committee of Vietnam.

cepf birdlife

tcf columbus zoo

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For more information please contact:

Asian Turtle Program (ATP) of Cleveland Metoparks Zoo,
Office: Room#1302, Thanh Cong Tower, 57 Lang Ha Street,
Ba Dinh, Hanoi, Vietnam

Tel: +84 (0) 4 3514 9750
Fax: +84 (0) 4 3519 0383




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