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Killing gods: The last hope for the world’s rarest reptile

  • After decades of dams, overhunting and pollution the Yangtze giant softshell turtle is down to three known individuals.
  • But conservationists say if they can just locate a male and female, survival for the world’s biggest freshwater turtle is still possible.
  • The plan would be to capture the animals and keep them in a semi-wild captive state, but more funding and resources are needed to move forward.

Eighty-eight-year-old Le Huy Hoanh stands up from his bench and carefully poured tea in rural Vietnam, and mimes for us how he used to kill gods. With his long spear and a net flanked in cruel hooks, Hoanh was known for decades in his little village as an able hunter of the Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei).

Hoanh looks spry and healthy for an octogenarian, speaking animatedly in Vietnamese. It’s not difficult to imagine him as a younger man, catching and killing the world’s biggest non-marine turtle, weighing upward of 200 kilograms (440 pounds) — now perhaps the most endangered animal on the planet.

The Yangtze giant softshell turtle. Photo by Gerald Kuchling.

In Vietnamese mythology, the Yangtze giant softshell turtle is also the living representative of the Great Turtle God, Kim Qui. The story goes something like this: Kim Qui’s master, a deity called the Dragon King, gave Emperor Lê Lợi his legendary sword, known as “Heaven’s Will.” With it, Lê Lợi freed Vietnam from a thousand-year rule by the Chinese. After his success, he was approached by Kim Qui, who asked for the sword back for the Dragon King. Lê Lợi handed over the legendary sword to the Turtle God and named the spot “The Lake of the Returned Sword,” or Hoan Kiem Lake.

While the last turtle god of Hoan Kiem perished in 2016 (“It was like losing part of our culture,” Hoang Van Ha, a conservationist with the Asian Turtle Program, or ATP, told The New Yorker), the species is not wholly gone — just almost.

Today, scientists know for sure of three animals: one in captivity (male) and two in the wild (sex unknown), but not inhabiting the same lake. The only known female died in captivity in April of last year, making the search for another female paramount.

Still, Tim McCormack, the head of the ATP headquartered in Hanoi, isn’t despairing. He says there’s still a chance to save this species — if we act quickly.

With only three known animals still alive, time is of the essence. The captive male, in China, may be incapable of breeding. In Vietnam, there has long been an individual in Dong Mo Lake, but in 2018, the ATP confirmed another animal in the wild: one in Xuan Khanh Lake. And McCormack suspects others may still be hiding in Vietnamese lakes and rivers, and maybe even across the border in Laos. We just need to find the survivors, catch them, and bring a breeding pair together, before the situation really becomes too late.

A statue of the Turtle God, Kim Qui, in a cafe next to Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.

“The possibilities for recovery are quite high,” McCormack tells me as we drive through the manic Hanoi traffic. He says a female can lay 30 to 40 eggs in one clutch, and more than one clutch a year.

With just one healthy pair, and a bit of luck, the global population could go from three to more than 50 in 12 months’ time.

Dong Mo Lake

Just an hour outside Hanoi’s bustles lies quiet Dong Mo Lake, a scenic, sprawling body of water in the shadow of the heavily forested Ba Vi Mountain. Dong Mo isn’t really a lake at all, but a 1,400-hectare (3,460-acre) reservoir, created when the Red River was dammed more than 40 years ago.

The dam is how McCormack and his team suspect the turtle god found its way here. McCormack and his team believe that Yangtze giant softshell turtles, as the name suggests, aren’t really lake turtles; they’re river and wetland turtles. Historically, they inhabited the Yangtze River in China and the Red River in both China and Vietnam, as well as adjacent wetlands. In their natural habitat, the turtles probably migrated through the rivers and nested on sandbanks in wetlands.

The scenic Dong Mo Lake with jungle-covered Ba Vi Mountain in the background. Photo courtesy of ATP.

McCormack believes that when the dams were built, several turtles became stranded in lakes and reservoirs like Dong Mo. These water bodies may be suboptimal habitat — we don’t know — but they’ve certainly made it impossible for turtles in different lakes to meet and mate.

At the same time the turtle population crashed. As people built dams, dumped pollution and overfished East Asia’s great waterways, we killed the once great river turtles off. And as humans destroyed the wetlands, largely for rice paddies, they routed the turtles even further. Survivors probably succumbed to hunters.

We take a boat onto the lake, heading toward a large island. The chances of actually seeing this turtle god are slim, I’m told repeatedly, but everyone on the boat still keeps a keen eye out.

The Yangtze giant softshell turtle is undeniably a strange-looking god: its long flat carapace and squishy body make it look, at times, like rolled-out, forest-green dough, the biggest weighing a stunning 150 to 220 kg (330 to 485 lb). It has a long neck, capable of periscoping like an otter, a mottled snout, goggly eyes, and a pig nose — its countenance not unlike an alien out of Star Wars.

But its oddity and rarity is what brought me here. The species is number 20 on the Zoological Society of London’s EDGE list of reptiles, which ranks species based on a combination of their genetic distinctiveness and how imperiled they are. The Yangtze giant softshell turtle has one living close relative: the Euphrates softshell turtle (Rafetus euphraticus), which is currently listed as endangered by the IUCN and clocks in at 59 on the EDGE list.

The dam on Dong Mo Lake. Photo by: Nguyen Tai Thang ATP/IMC.

After a short ride, we reach the island and meet Nguyen Van Trong. In his sixties and a former fisherman, Trong is now a full-time turtle watcher. Before the Red River was dammed, this island was actually his home; it was the site of the original village. When the dam was built, villagers were forced to move to a new spot on the edge of the reservoir.

Trong tells me via a translator that he remembers many turtles in the area when he was very young. Now, there is likely just the one here, but Trong knows this individual very well. One could say he’s become attached.

“If he goes to work and he doesn’t see it that day, sometimes he feel a bit sad — which turns out to be many days,” the translator tells me.

On average, Trong sees the turtle about two to three times a month. If the villagers don’t see it for a few months, McCormack says, “they start to worry.”

With the presence of conservationists here, the villagers have come to see the animal as one of their own.

“All the people in the village and all the fishermen now know this Rafetus species in here [and] very rare. They want to keep it for long time for all students in the village can see it in the future,” Trong says via the translator. “They maintain it for, yes, future generations.”

Local fishermen agree to protecting the Yangtze giant softshell turtle in Dong Mo Lake. Photo courtesy of ATP.

To this end, sections of the lake have become no-fishing zones. Meanwhile, the team tells me that whenever any of the village’s more than 50 fishermen see the turtle, they call Trong.

We head up the island and visit a recently constructed bamboo hut for Trong’s convenience, so he has a shelter to sit in while watching for the turtle of Dong Mo to make its appearances. It doesn’t during our short visit, but that’s to be expected of this shy god.

Xuan Khanh Lake

 About 20 kilometers (12 miles) northwest of Dong Mo sits another lake: Xuan Khanh, smaller and less picturesque than Dong Mo, but, as of 2018, the known home to another Yangtze giant softshell turtle.

Here, the ATP used a different strategy to find the turtle: after reports and photos of the animals proved inconclusive, they turned to environmental DNA, or eDNA. Taking samples of the water, they were able to finally prove a Yangtze giant softshell turtle lives here.

But eDNA has its limits in the search for more turtles: McCormack says the technology is not the “silver bullet” they’d hoped. They’ve discovered that eDNA may give many, many potential false negatives, likely due to trying to get the DNA of a single animal from a large body of water. In other words, it turns out getting DNA for the Yangtze giant softshell turtle is like finding a needle in a haystack or, you know, a single turtle in a massive body of water.

How observers usually see the animal – periscoping above the water, most of its body invisible. Photo by: Nguyen Tai Thang / ATP.

This means that although the team has deployed eDNA in other water bodies — and only gotten negatives — they still can’t rule out other turtles.

Instead of going out on a boat, we talk a short walk, in the heat of the afternoon, around a small portion of Xuan Khanh, within sight of where the turtle mostly resides. As in Dong Mo, no turtle god appears, but according to DNA, at least, it’s there, just below the surface.

But with only three animals, can anything be done? Yes, says McCormack. There are two next steps: one is to figure out the sex of the two turtles in the lakes. The other is to ramp up the search for more individuals.

The confirmation of one female could make all the difference. If this happens, big decisions would have to be made: whether breeding should be attempted in the wild or in captivity.

“I think each has pros and cons,” McCormack says.

Currently, he says, the most likely plan would be to attempt breeding in a captive situation but on site. This would allow conservationists and veterinarians the ability to closely monitor the process, but keep the animals out of the public eye (unlike, say, at a zoo) and allow the staff to use local water from the lakes. If other turtles are found, they could be brought to the same site. To date, there is no facility built for this, but McCormack says a number of sites are being considered, including the island on Dong Mo.

Along with the ATP, the current proposal involves numerous conservation groups, including the Wildlife Conservation Society, Global Wildlife Conservation, Turtle Survival Alliance, Indo-Myanmar Conservation, the Hanoi University of Science, and, of course, Vietnamese officials.

Processing water samples on site. Photo by: Nguyen Tai Thang, ATP/IMC.

But McCormack says what’s needed most is funding.

“It’s amazing — the species is so rare but if you look at funding and resources available it’s quite limited. If you look at tiger conservation or elephant, you’re talking about millions of dollars being put into it. For these species, there’s very little in comparison.”

Most of the money currently comes from grants and zoos, especially Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in the U.S.

But to build a facility, McCormack says, “we need a lot more funding.”

The hunter

Le Huy Hoanh, the former turtle hunter, lives in a comfortable rural setting in a village not far from the lakes we visit. The proud father of 10 grown children, he makes us tea and tells us about the old days, when Yangtze giant softshell turtles were still abundant and adventure was high.

Hoanh, growing up in the 1930s, learned how to hunt the turtles from his father and grandfather. When he was around 12, hunters went out in groups of four on small boats and used a spear or harpoon to try and kill the animals, almost like a miniature version of the whalers of old. But increasingly, hooks and lines were used as an easier, less perilous option. The hunting appears to have been largely a village sport, with many men taking part, but the special hunters were those skilled in spearing.

A photo of the animal in Dong Mo Lake after it was rescued when a dam broke in 2008. It was safely returned to its home. Photo by Tim McCormack, ATP/IMC.

Over a hunting career that spanned around six decades, Hoanh says he caught six large turtles in Suoi Hai Lake and 17 in the Dam Long wetlands. Many smaller animals may have been caught too. In the 1940s, Hoanh says, the Red River broke its banks, sending many Yangtze giant softshell turtles into Dong Mo Lake, where they were for a short time as common as “chickens in the garden.” Nearly all of these animals were caught as food for the village, often eaten with rice wine.

“The softshell turtles didn’t sell for anything different in the market. They were just butchered and consumed locally, most of them,” McCormack says. “It’s only recently when they became rare [that] there’s more demand for them.”

Now demand for Chinese traditional medicine means that turtle bones can be worth a small windfall. Hoanh tells us that poachers sold the bones of one turtle for 45 million Vietnamese dong — nearly $2,000.

“This is when people started realizing they were rare,” McCormack adds.

However, the massive animals are not easy to catch. Not only can old turtles weigh more than two men combined — a single bite from their beaked mouth can rip a person’s flesh clean off. Hoanh describes them as “very fast,” telling us how during one escapade a turtle managed to capsize the boat of hunters and escape.

I ask Hoanh, via the translator, what the giant tastes like? He responds with, “It tastes just like soft-shelled turtle.”

As I listen, I think about how Hoanh’s stories resemble those of mythic dragon hunters or 19th-century whalers: a kind of struggle of man versus beast, a sprinkle of legend. But in this case, the beast in question is already heading toward possible extinction.

After our interview, Hoanh shows us the long spears used to kill the giant turtles, and the nets, deployed with hundreds of sharp curved hooks, deployed to entrap them.

Hoang caught his last turtle in the 1990s and sold it to a tourism company. No one knows what happened to it. Hoang says he kept attempting hunts for another few years, but most of the animals were gone by then. He estimates the last animal he tried to hunt weighed 400 kg (880 lb) — almost twice the size of any known Yangtze softshell turtle. It got away. Perhaps it was the final giant of his career. Or a myth, as good as a god.

Vietnam has changed much since Hoang was a child. He was born under French rule; Japanese occupation came next. There was the rise of Ho Chi Minh, the fall of France, and the Vietnam War (when Hoang was in his forties), or as they call it here, the American War. Finally, reunification and independence. And now the giants he once hunted are nearly a thing of the past, more myth than reality.

A Yangtze giant softshell turtle in Vietnam. Image by Phuongcacanh via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

But the story of the turtle god, Kim Qui, doesn’t have to end here. It’s possible — with the proper resources, maybe even likely — that conservationists may find a pair capable of breeding. Just one nest would give the species a chance. A few healthy animals could lead to a population in the hundreds in just a few years.

Perhaps one day, the animal could even be brought home to its “Lake of the Returned Sword” in Hanoi.

A myth reforged. A god resurrected.

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