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The Swinhoe's Softshell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) Project

The critically endangered Swinhoe’s Soft-shell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), a large soft-shell turtle first described in 1873 but for which little has been learned since. Now the species is listed by the Turtle Conservation Fund (TCF) in 2011 amongst the top 25 endangered turtles in the world. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the species as Critically-Endangered in their red list, 2010. Considered by many to be the world’s most endangered turtle species, at present, only four animals are known in existence - two which have been brought together in China’s Suzhou Zoo in the hope of breeding, one in Vietnam in Hanoi’s central Hoan Kiem Lake and the fourth confirmed in the wild by the ATP in 2007 in Dong Mo Lake near Hanoi. The species, believed to be on the verge of extinction, has special cultural significance in Vietnam. A 15th century legend has led many people to revere the animal in Hanoi as a living god (Heinselman, 2000).

Distribution: Historically, the Red River drainage system and other large rivers in northern Vietnam and southern China

Habitat: Large Rivers and adjacent wetlands and lakes, including Dong Mo Lake

Threats: Major causes of their decline are habitat loss, hunting and trade, historically mostly for local consumption








Activities to date
Since 2003, the Asian Turtle Program (ATP) of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has conducted interview surveys for Rafetus swinhoei in eight provinces of northern Vietnam. During surveys, the shells and skulls of six Rafetus were found and a number of sites where the species historically occurred and potentially remains were identified. At three primary sites in Thanh Hoa, Ha Tay and Yen Bai, six months of observations have been made. During 2007, at Dong Mo Lake in Ha Tay province, a wild Rafetus swinhoei was observed and photographed, representing the first confirmation of the species in the wild and only the fourth individual of the species known in existence

The Rafetus conservation program has maintained a full time presence at the project site at Dong Mo Lake since January 2007. The local counterpart, previously a fisherman on the lake, has lived in the local village all his life. He is well known in the local community and through his involvement in the monitoring, the project receives good community support.

A workshop was held in April 2009 with the lake owners, local schools, FPD, Peoples Committee and management from a golf course situated on a peninsula in the lake. Education programs are already being undertaken in local schools by our local partner, Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV).

Upon discovery of the wild Rafetus swinhoei, a permanent presence was established at the site, school awareness programs were initiated, regular patrols of the area were started and meetings with local fishermen were undertaken. In November 2008, a Rafetus swinhoei weighing 69 kg and measuring 90 cm in length was rescued from local trade. This animal, believed to be the same one observed in Dong Mo and washed out during a flood when a dam burst, was recovered and returned to the lake through cooperation with the local community, Peoples Committee, Forest Protection Department (FPD) and a local NGO and counterpart, Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV). The rescue of this animal was only possible due to the presence of ATP in the community and awareness activities that had already been undertaken.

Ongoing awareness & research
The future of this species in Vietnam is uncertain. Conservationists have been conducting surveys along large river in northern Vietnam to learn more about the species and in the hope of finding others individuals surviving in the wild. While here in Dong Mo local fishermen are working with a conservation team to study and protect the Dong Mo turtles and look for additional animals.

In additional, the special lesson and community meeting has been designed for the secondary schools and local people who stay nearby Dong Mo Lake to encourage them to protect their pride. The Turtle football cup and Boat race have also been carried out by the ATP to create greater community support for the species.

In September 2010, a new awareness poster for the Rafetus swinhoei has been produced by ATP. The poster is to be distributed during interview surveys throughout northern Vietnam conducted by the Asian Turtle Program (ATP) searching for additional animals and habitat. As well as increasing awareness to the importance of these large turtles and their link to the sacred animal in Hanoi the poster also carries contact information allowing people to report information on possible additional sites for the species


Future research and conservation needs.

Need for better protection, of the species and its habitat. Dong Mo Lake, the only known wild habitat for the species could be provided protected habitat status either as a Nature Reserve or Species Habitat Conservation Area (SHCA).

Protection under national law, despite the rarity of the species and the cultural importance of the animal in Hanoi it remains unprotected under national law.

At present the animal in Dong Mo Lake is at risk from a new dam constructed in 2010 to replace the old dam destroyed during flooding. When gates on the dam are opened during high water the animal could escape again, a secure fence built before the dam would prevent any escape.

Continued field work to identify any remain populations of the species in Vietnam and China is of urgent importance.

Consideration of a breeding loan program to bring the animal in Dong Mo lake for breeding with captive animals in China could be considered if additional wild animals can not be located.


12th July 2011 - Hoan Kiem Turtle released after treatment

6th May 2011 - Art competition for the world’s most endangered turtle inspires thousands of school children in Vietnam

24th April 2010 - Football raises local awareness to worlds rarest turtle

6th April 2011 - Hoan Kiem Turtle, the rescue 2011

October 2010 - Boat race in Dong Mo to raise awareness to turtle

October 2010 - New awareness poster produced for Swinhoe's softshell turtle, Rafetus swinhoei

November 2008 - One of the worlds rarest turtles rescued in Vietnam




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, Melbourne 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.

birdlife Columbus Zoo TCF


Support Our Conservation Activities, if you would like our program and activities please visit our donations page or click the link below. If you would like to support the Rafetus project in particular please include "Rafetus" with any donation made.

For more information please contact:

Asian Turtle Program (ATP) of Cleveland Metroparks 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 3514 9750 Ext11




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Asian Turtle Program - Indo Myanmar Conservation
Room#1806 CT1, C14 Bac Ha Building, To Huu Street, Nam Tu Liem District, Hanoi, Vietnam
PO Box 46
Phone:+84 (0)4 7302 8389

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