A giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) residing in Hanoi, Vietnam gained international attention early this year following successful treatment after displaying potentially life threatening injuries. The individual in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem lake is extremely old, most likely a centenarian to which legends give mystical status. A sighting of the animal in Hanoi bringing good fortune to those who see it and too Vietnam.
But the animal is also a symbol of the plight of Vietnam’s wildlife, one of only four known examples of the species known in existence. Once common in the Red River delta of northern Vietnam and its range across into southern China, intensive hunting in the 1980’s and 1990’s combined with increasing agricultural conversion of lowland wetlands and intensive fishing throughout the species range has pushed these giant turtles to the brink of extinction.
The threat to the species was emphasised on the 12th of October 2011 when a fisherman, Mr Nguyen Ba Toan, in the Red River near the Chuong Duong bridge, Hanoi caught a large 22kg softshell turtle. The capture caused much excitement with many people initially believing he had caught another Hoan Kiem Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei). On identification the species turned out to be a large Asiatic Softshell (Amyda cartilaginea) which occurs in southern Vietnam and elsewhere in southeast Asia but is not native to northern Vietnam or the Red River where this individual was caught. The animal is most likely an escapee from a farm or has been released.
Sadly despite the species being considered endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the red list of endangered species and protected from international trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) the local authorities did nothing to rescue the animal. It was sold two days later for a staggering 180,000,000vnd ($8,000), apparently bought by a Chinese wildlife trader. Even though such an action is illegal under national law Decree 99/2009/ND-CP section 3 article 9 which protected CITES listed species meaning the fisherman could be potential be fine 200,000,000VND to 300,000,000VND ($10,000 – 15,000) (Decree 99/2009/ND-CP section 19 article 7a).
Such neglect of wildlife and protection laws is an almost daily occurrence and it is widely acknowledge that Vietnam’s wildlife is facing an extinction crisis, as is seen in much of southeast Asia. 2010 saw the last of the last Vietnamese Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus) hunted in Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam, representing the loss of an entire sub-species and unless laws are enforced and protected areas protected many more extinctions are expected in the coming decades.
Fewer individuals of the Hoan Kiem Turtle species (Rafetus swinhoei) are believed to survive in the wild than other more charismatic and well known species such as the South China tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) which has only 59 captive animals or the mountain gorilla’s (Gorilla beringei beringei) of which 600 are estimated to survive. Yet rarely do these giant turtles which can reach over 150kg in size gain international recognition. However during 2010 rescue and treatment of the large and locally famous individual in Hanoi, and during an operation estimated at costing over $400,000, the species did gain some attention although most of was captured and treated with unprecedented media attention.
It seems tragic that despite all the attention for the single individual in Hanoi little attention has been made by the national authorities to protect the species elsewhere in Vietnam. The only known wild population identified in 2007 at Dong Mo Lake just outside Hanoi still remain unprotected, no funding has been provided to the Forest Protection Department (FPD) or Fisheries Department (FD) to secure the site with activities fully dependant on NGO’s the local communities and lake owners who support conservation of the species. A newly constructed dam at Dong Mo Lake is not turtle proof and at present safety of the species is very much dependant on nets put in place by contentious lake owners to prevent any animals in the lake escaping through the dam once doors are opened to release water.
With the only breeding pair of Rafetus swinhoei anywhere in the world maintained in China having laid infertile eggs for the fourth year in a row time is running out for this species. How long must we wait before positive action is taken to save this and other species, time is ticking away, and with rapid development and continued loss and degradation of habitat the clock is ticking faster than ever.
By Tim McCormack – Asian Turtle Program (ATP) 19th October 2011
The Asian Turtle Program (ATP) of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has conducted extensive work to try and protect the species and identify additional wild populations with support from the Turtle Conservation Fund (TCF), CEPF and Columbus Zoo.