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News and updates from the rescue of the Hoan Kiem Turtle in Hanoi, Vietnam

A symbol of Hanoi to many Vietnamese Hoan Kiem lake and its turtle island in Hanoi's central old quarter is also home to a giant swinhoe's softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei). One of only four of its species known in existence the animal in Hanoi also related to a 15th century legend in which a magical sword used to defeat an invading Chinese army was returned to the turtle by King Le Loi. Every since sightings of the giant turtle have signified important events for Vietnam.

The turtle is also important to conservation, of the species Rafetus swinhoei (Swinhoe's Softshell Turtle) the species is also considered one of the most endangered turtles, if not animals, in the world. Only four individuals are known to exist, two in Shouzou zoo in China, one in Dong Mo Lake outside of Hanoi and a single large individual in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake. Historically distributed in northern Vietnam and southern China in large river systems and associated wetland the species is now critically endangered (ICUN 2010). Habitat loss and hunting (largely for local consumption) have all but wiped the species out.

However in late 2010 poor water quality in the tinny 12 hectare central Hanoi lake and a series of injuries to the legendary turtle caused concern internationally and the decision was made for removal and treatment of the old animal.

Great steps have been taken to try and rescue the animal and ensure the legend lives on.


A history and updates are provided here:

The Future:

July 2011:

12th June 2011, at 17:45hrs on Monday afternoon the 169kg Hoan Kiem Turtle was released back into the the central Hanoi lake with good recovery seen in the last three months. Capture, treatment and care for the animal has been a monumental effort. All those involved in the rescue should be extremely proud. During the treatment the opportunity has been taken to clean the 12ha lake that had become severely polluted. Hopefully the old animal will be happy in its redecorated home.

Rafetus before treatment

Hoan Kiem Rafetus before treatment, after capture on 3rd April 2011, Photo from VNExpress 13Jul11

Rafetus after treatment

Hoan Kiem Rafetus before release, a much healthier looking animal, Photo VNExpress online 13Jul11

June 2011:

23rd June 2011, plans to increase the size of the holding tank for the Hoan Kiem Turtle, according to a working group of the committee working on the turtle treatment they plan to increase the size of the holding tank to 900m2 and 1.8m deep. This is to reduce ill effects and risks from heat stress on the turtle with Hanoi temperatures often in the mid 30C's recently. It is interesting that they have decided to hold the animal for longer as this activity clearly indicates.


8th June 2011, 60,000 fish we're released into Hoan Kiem lake to stock it in preparation for the release of the turtle. A variety of species, some native some non-native were selected to provide food for the sacred animal following its release. The article reported that the animal would be released in the next couple of days but this event did not happen.


May 2011:

13th May 2011: workshop held to discuss option for tracking and feeding the Hoan Kiem Turtle following its release. Radio tracking and risks involved with attachment of various transmitter techniques were discussed and the question raised on what the really value of tracking the animal in such a small lake would be.


3rd May 2011: DNA results in Hanoi confirm the Hoan Kiem Turtle is a new species and name it Rafetus vietnamensis. Scientist in the Biological Institute on Hanoi announced their results claiming the species distributed throughout northern Vietnam is distinct from Rafetus swinhoei. But could not say if the Dong Mo Rafetus was the same species as they do not have a sample from this animal. An early study using the Dong Mo Rafetus DNA confirmed the species is the same as those in China and from specimens collected in Vietnam both north and south of Hanoi. It is not clear which samples have been used in the most recent studies, particularly relating to the Chinese animals maintained in Suzhou Zoo for which no DNA work has been undertaken to date.

Rafetus DNA lab

Laboratory work being completed, photo from the Hoa Binh News 3May11

April 2011:

27th April 2011, A paper published by Le Tran Binh et al 2010 described the Rafetus species in Vietnam as a new and distinct species from those in China based on DNA and morphology. Results are not entirely clear and warrant further clarification and review.

image comparison of skulls

Comparison of skulls in the paper, image from Le Tran Binh et al 2010


21st April 2011, Dr Binh makes the announcement that the Hoan Kiem Turtle is a new species, different from the Chinese animals and Dong Mo Rafetus swinhoei, the new scientific name Rafetus vietnamensis is proposed. Dr Binh believes the Rafetus from Hoan Kiem maybe distantly related to the Rafetus from the Red River but has been separated for millions of years. This seems unlikely as Hoan Kiem lake was connected to the Red River within documented history.

Previously the animal Hoan Kiem Lake had already been describe as a new species, Rafetus leloii by Prof Ha Dinh Duc in 2004. The article also states that a DNA sample with be sent to the World Gene Bank in Switzerland.

Based on test results the Hoan Kiem Turtle has also been identified as a female, this could have important implications for conservation of the species as the Dong Mo Rafetus swinhoei has been identified as a male.

The turtle is described as making a good recovery. While in treatment ultra sound and chemical sterilization techniques have also been proposed as solutions for urgently cleaning the lake.

Additional Vietnamese language information on this subject

Rafetus Hoan Kiem head shot

Head shot of the Hoan Kiem Rafetus, date taken unknown, source Vietnam net online 21Apr11


19th April 2011, Two weeks after it capture the Hoan Kiem Turtle is responding well too treatment. The animal has been moved to a larger 200m3 holding tank constructed on the turtle island in the middle of the sacred Hoan Kiem lake. Eating well some of the visible injuries such as the open lesions at the front of the carapace are reportedly visibly healing.

Rafetus in holding tank

The holding tank constructed in the middle of Hoan Kiem lake for treatment of the turtle

Rafetus receives treatment

An inspection of the Rafetus swinhoei in Hoan Kiem lake clearly shows the size of the animal

whats going on

The Hoan Kiem Rafetus seems to be interested in what is going on

All photos from Vietnam Environmental Journalist Forum web site


3rd April 2011, Hard work pays off as the Hoan Kiem Turtle is successfully captured. At 17:00hrs the Hoan Kiem turtle is finally captured and moved to the specially built turtle hospital. Large crowds estimated at 3,000 watch as the turtle is netted and transferred to a temporary floating cage used to move it to the island where it was winched into it holding and treatment tank.

success, Rafetus swinhoei captured

As the turtle was moved in a temporary holding cage the team on the lake could be heard singing in celebration. Photo Lao Dong News, 3Apr11


success in capturing the Hoan Kiem turtle

At the island a winch moved the turtle into the temporary holding and treatment tank. Photo Lao Dong News, 3Apr11


success in capturing Rafetus swinhoei

In the holding tank the true size of the turtle can be seen. Fortunately the animal did not appear to stressed from it ordeal. Photo Lao Dong News, 3Apr11


2nd April 2011, capture team practice capturing turtles in preparation for a second go at bagging the Hoan Kiem turtle. The team responsible for capturing the Hoan Kiem turtle train hard in the technique of using the new fishing net to catch large turtles to avoid a second escape.


capture team practise

Practice makes perfect as the team get familiar with the new net. Photo 24H web site, 2Apr11

capture team practise

A clear plan is formed for the second capture attempt. Photo 24H web site, 2Apr11

Capture team practiser

Live turtles used in exercises. Photo 24H web site, 2Apr11


March 2011:

22nd March 2011, the Hoan Kiem turtle is being seen observed immerging daily, often for long periods of time as people continue to worry about its health.


Turtle continues to surface

The Hoan Kiem turtle surface daily amid continued worries over its health. Photo Tien Phong News, Tuan Nguyen Mar11


14th March 2011, a new heavy duty net imported from Japan for second capture attempt. A larger 1000m2 net, similar to those used in tuna fisheries was imported from Japan to ensure the Hoan Kiem turtle doesn't escape a second time.


tuna net for turtle

New net is constructed for the second capture attempt. Photo 24H web, 14Mar11

8th March 2011, thousands watch as first attempt to capture the Hoan Kiem Turtle ends with the giant animal making a show of strength and destroying the nets. On Tuesday large crowds gathered around Hoan Kiem lake as the capture team attempted to catch the lakes sick resident. Local fishing nets were used in two layers to surround the animal, its location tracked by bubbles caused by the animals movement across the bed of the shallow lake. At 8:28hrs the teams working from several small small boats with two scuba divers successfully corralled the turtle, a team on the lake banks pulled the nets in. Everything was working perfectly and following hours or struggling with many of the capture team waist deep in the cold lake waters the giant turtle just metres from the bank.

A military truck loaded with 3-4 floating barges arrived with the intention of pulling the animal from the lake and loading into a barge to be returned to the holding tank constructed on the island in the centre of the lake. Cheers went up at from the crowd at 13:05hrs as they thought the capture was imminent but at the last minute the turtle broke free, ripping through both nets and back into the middle of the lake. The turtle made one visible swim past the spectators as in defiance before submerging allowing the capture teams to regroup and rest. Despite great effort its clear the nets need to be constructed of more durable material to successfully catch such a large animal.

crowds gather to watch first capture attempt

As spectators gathered more than 10 deep in some places its amazing no one ended up in the lake who wasn't supposed to be there. Photo Vietnamnet 8Mar11

net for first capture attempt

The net used for the first capture attempt turned out not to be strong enough as the massive animal tore through two layers in a dramatic escape moments from capture. Photo Vietnamnet 8Mar11

7th March 2011, some discussion was held on whether international veterinary experts should be invited to participate in treatment of the turtle.


6th March 2011, ceremonies take place at Hoan Kiem lake to bring good fortune to the capture team and successful treatment of the sacred turtle. Flowers and ceremonial swords and cross bows are taken to Hoan Kiem lake before the capture of the turtle is attempted. Some rumours circulated on the web that the cross bow would be used to administer a tranquilliser for the turtle but this was quickly dispelled as fiction.

The activity around the lake clear shows the cultural importance of the turtle in Vietnam.

ceremony prepared at Hoan Kiem lake

A team leaves on the boat for a ceremony on Hoan Kiem lake to present a sword, crossbow and flowers to the sacred turtle. Photo Vietnamnet 6Mar11


cross bow and sword for Hoan Kiem turtle

The crossbow was not to be used to anaesthetise the turtle as some had speculated. Photo Vietnamnet 6Mar11

preparing for the ceremony

Spotting the Hoan Kiem turtle in the distance before the ceremony the team hope will bring good luck. Photo 6Mar11


4th March 2011, turtle hospital to be built on lake island. Work begins in Ernest on the turtle island located in the middle of Hoan Kiem lake to build an emergency hospital for the sick Hoan Kiem turtle. With the animals health apparently deteriorating local authorities waste no time in constructing the special facility in which they intend to hold the animal for treatment and observations for 90 days while the lake is also cleaned. The age of the ancient animal maybe a factor in success of treatment but many Hanoians hold their breath and hope for a successful outcome.

Turtle hospital Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lakes historic turtle island becomes the site of feverish activity as local authorities prepare the island to treat the lakes most famous resident, the Hoan Kiem turtle. Photo VNExpress 4Mar11

Water filtration tanks are installed to allow the turtle to remain in clean lake water during treatment. Photo VNExpress 4Mar11

turtle hospital hanoi

Guard rails secure the entire island. Photos VNExpress 4Mar11

turtle hospital hanoi

The special designed holding tank complete with hanging walkway for treatment access. Photo VNExpress 4Mar11

3rd March 2011, sick turtle appears to be trying to climb from Hoan Kiem lake, this is the second time in as many months the turtle has been photographed displaying this unusual behaviour. Such signs often indicate poor health in these normally shy reptiles. Injuries on the forelegs of the animal also appear to be worsening and becoming more inflamed. Poor water quality in the lake which is visibly very polluted are likely to be compounding health issues.

Rafetus swinhoei tries to leave lake

"Cu Rua", grandfather turtle from Hoan Kiem looks to be showing his age and poor health. Photo from Tuoi Tre online by Tien Thanh

Rafetus tries to leave the lake

Injuries to the forelimbs appear to have deteriorated since last seen in February. Photo from Tuoi Tre online by Tien Thanh


2nd March 2011, Trapping of red eared sliders started with a vengeance. A variety of trap designs were put out in Hoan Kiem lake to catch the invasive north American Red Eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) which many have blamed for attacking the Hoan Kiem Turtle.

VNexpress red eared sliders

red eared sliders

trapping Hoan Kiem lake

Photos from VNExpress online 3Mar11 showing different traps used on Hoan Kiem lake to catch the red eared sliders


February 2011:

27th February 2011, Cleaning activity starts around the lake, freshwater started being pumped into the lake to dilute pollution and raise the water level by 30cm. Dredging of sediment and removal of debris started. While turtle traps were also put in place to start removing the red eared sliders reduced into the lake.


Photo from Vietnamnet 3Mar11, Debris removed from Hoan Kiem lake during cleaning operation


Photo from Vietnamnet, 3Mar11 water being pumped into Hoan Kiem lake to increase the water level by 30cm



17th February 2011, Emergency committee established to protect the legendary Hoan Kiem Turtle. Short term measures such as improving the lake water quality, sediment removal and removal of dangerous debris from the lake was proposed. While the more complex procedure of capture, holding and treatment is to be addressed by the committees assigned teams.


15th February 2011, Rescue and treatment workshop held in Hanoi, over 50 national and international experts met in Hanoi to discuss the injuries and apparent threats the the sacred Hoan Kiem Turtle. Possible solutions for capture, holding and treatment were discussed along with associated risks. In particular risks in capturing and treating such a large and old animal.

Causes for the injuries discussed included injury by fishing hooks used by some local residents in the lake. With a low water level throughout the dry season pollution in the lake has also most likely been an important factor in the turtles health. As early as 1997 the need to clean Hoan Kiem lake was discussed to protected the famous turtle. Yet in 2011 the lake has been recorded with very alkaline water (Ph 9) and is visibly heavily polluted and will likely make natural recovery of the turtle in Hoan Kiem lake difficult.

DNA samples should also be taken to confirm the relationship between the Hoan Kiem turtle and Rafetus swinhoei elsewhere throughout the range

Dong Mo Rafetus swinhoei

DNA comparison suggested to confirm the Dong Mo Rafetus swinhoei is the same species at the Hoan Kiem Turtle Photo by Hoang Van Thai (Turtle Conservation Centre, Cuc Phuong National Park)

Some local experts also claimed that the giant softshell in Hoan Kiem lake is a member of a new species of which it is the last remaining member. While Doug Hendrie of Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV) also pointed out that at such an age the outcome of any intervention could not be guaranteed and conservation of the species should also focus on habitat protection and breeding attempts with the last remaining known individuals, of which there are only three not including the Hoan Kiem turtle.


Tui Tre news

Photo from Tuoi Tre News online, 15Feb11, the injury to the front of the turtles carapace clearly visible in this photo caused concern for the animals health


14th April 2011, local scientist calculates how frequently the turtle surfaces each year. A local scientist, Professor Ha Dinh Duc has calculated how many times he has seen the turtle surface each year from 2007 to 2010. He believes its surfaced 134 times in 2010 against only 72 times in 2007, its not clear how these figures can be compared but one thing most people agree on is the animal has been a lot more visible in recent months and is displaying clear injuries. Pollution is still a major concern for the animals health in the shallow lake which ranges from 0.5 to 1.5m deep.


12th February 2011, Further signs of stress, on the 12th of February the turtle was observed near the Ngoc Son Temple island biting piping leading from the lake bank through the shallow lake to the temple. Such behaviour has not been seen in the Hoan Kiem Turtle before and caused additional concern.

Rafetus biting pipes

Photo from VNExpress 12Feb11, The Hoan Kiem Rafetus swinhoei seen biting piping leading to an island pagoda in the lake


11th February 2011, Concerns over the Hoan Kiem Turtles health. Introduced north American red eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) seen basking on its carapace blamed for possibly causing injuries seen at the front of the turtles shell. Although this is an unlikely culprit it has been quickly picked up in the media.

Red eared slider on the Hoan Kiem turtle

Photo from VNexpress 11Feb11, by Vu Long, An introduced red eared slider seen taking a ride on the Hoan Kiem Turtle


11th February 2011, with the turtle climbing the edge of the lake in attempts to escape some believe the Hoan Kiem turtle is trying to display its injury to receive help. Such behaviour in turtles climbing from the lake during cold weather especially 'basking' on cold overcast days is often associated with ill health and stress which often precedes death. In April 1968 another Rafetus swinhoei in the lake died after showing similar behaviour climbing out the lake with bleeding injuries to its carapace following being hit with a crow bar a few days before. Some people also think the animal is 700 years old, and the same individual which related to the 15th century legend of King Le Loi and his magical sword.

Rafetus trying to climb from lake

Injuries in the Hoan Kiem Rafetus also appear to be in the front right leg, raising concerns for the animals health. Photos by Hai Le

Rafetus trying to climb from lake

Some people believed the animal was displaying its injuries in a cry for help, Photos Hai Le (following the release of these photos many people were shocked and became more concerned for the animals health)


9th February 2011, during the lunar Tet holiday the Hoan Kiem Turtle seen immerging. Crowds gathered to watch the animal, normally a sign of good fortune for Vietnam concerns now are that the regular appearance of the animal maybe signs of something more sinister with concerns over the animals health

crowds watch Hoan Kiem turtle during tet

Crowds watch the Hoan Kiem turtle in Hanoi over Tet, photo Vietnamnet 9Feb11

January 2011

18th January 2011, Locals claimed two large turtles seen emerging at the edge of the lake at the same time, 21:20hrs. This seems unlikely as only one Rafetus swinhoei is believed to live in the lake and photographs taken in recent years all seem to be the same distinctive animal. In 2010 a large Asiatic Softshell Turtle (Amyda cartilaginea) was seen in the lake shortly before it died. This animal found in southern Vietnam must have been released into the lake.


6th January 2011, is the Hoan Kiem turtle being seen so much because its sick or is it displaying normal behaviour. Speculation that water going through the lake have caused the injury on the carapace.

Permission will also be given from Hanoi People Committee for capture and treatment of the Hoan Kiem Turtle. Its also claimed that trapping will aim to remove 99% of the red eared sliders from the lake.


4th January 2011, discussion on need to remove the Hoan Keim turtle for treatment. Concerns over the animals health is mounting and many believe intervention is required to help save the sacred animal.


31st December 2010, Hanoi Department of Science and Technology (DOST) announce a team has been established to catch the red eared sliders (Trachemys scripta) in Hoan Kiem lake. Fears have been raised that these invasive turtles are responsible for attacking the legendary Hoan Kiem Turtle, although this is highly unlikely traps are to be used to remove the red ears, poisons and harmful methods have expressly been prohibited.


31st December 2010, some new injuries observed on the Hoan Kiem Turtle, journalists believe the sacred turtle has news injuries on its neck as well as the visible lesion on in carapace. The neck injury is actually an old healed injury apparently caused by a steel reinforcing bar in the lake during construction of concrete banking surrounding the lake almost a decade ago.

Prof Ha Dinh Duc believes the red eared slider turtles (Tracemys scripta elegans) often released into the lake has caused the injuries.

Rafetus head

Head of the Hoan Kiem Rafetus Swinhoei showing the white spot which experts believe distinguishes this animal from others. Photo VNExpress online 31Dec10


Rafetus carapace injury

The open lesion on the carapace of the Hoan Kiem Turtle, the worsening of this injuring along with frequent surfacing of the animal has caused significant concern amongst biologists, veterinary experts and locals. Photo VNExpress online, 31Dec10

Rafetus neck injury

Scar tissue on the neck of the Hoan Kiem turtle is believed to be an old healed injury cause during lake construction activities in the 1990's. Photo VNExpress online 31Dec10


November 2010

22nd November 2010, the famous Hoan Kiem Turtle is seen in distress with what appears to be bike inner tube sticking from its mouth. Ingestion of rubbish, particularly plastic is not unusual in turtles but can cause serious health problems or death if it becomes compacted and blocks the digestive tract. It is not clear how the turtle came across the rubbish the the central Hanoi lake or whether it was able to successfully remove it.

Rafetus with rubber in mouth

The famous Hoan Kiem turtle appeared stressed on monday with rubber tubing stuck in its mouth Photo from VNExpress online 23Nov10


September 2010

15th September 2010, a second hook seen in the turtles shell, this hook further up the carapace was observed on the 15th of September and has people wondering if the ancient turtle is deliberately being targeted by local fishermen. The reasons for the attacks remain unknown.

Second hook in Hoan Kiem Rafetus swinhoei

A second apparent hook seen in the ancient animal, reasons for targeting the sacred turtle remain unknown. Photo Dan Tri web site, 17Sep10

6th September 2010, a video on a local web site shows a local youth with his fishing line stuck on a large object in Hoan Kiem lake, this appears to have been the legendary Hoan Kiem turtle. A photo which immerged on the 6th of September with unknown capture date appears to show a hook caught at the front of the animals carapace. Close to the location in which the open lesion was later observed in 2011. This appears to have been the start of health problems for this rare animal, one of just four of it species known in existence.

Hook in the Hoan Kiem Rafetus

The Hoan Kiem Turtle was seen in early September with a fish hook stuck in the front of the carapace. Photo from VNExpress 6Sep10




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8th March 2011, scuba men called in to help in catching the Hoan Kiem Rafetus swinhoei



Youtube Video on the rescue of the Hoan Kiem Rafetus swinhoei



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