World's Rarest Turtle
Charleston, South Carolina - The Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), one of the rarest animals on Earth, may have been given a reprieve from extinction this week with the announcement that Vietnam and China may work to cooperate in saving it. Vietnam's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development on Monday informed the Hanoi administration of China's recent suggestion that both countries collaborate in attempting to breed the four known living animals.
The fourth living specimen, of unknown sex, was confirmed in Vietnam's Xuan Khanh Lake this past April. Two of the other three living animals, a female and an aging male, have been kept since 2008 in the Suzhou Zoo in China. Despite three internationally spearheaded artificial insemination attempts, all of the eggs laid by the female have been infertile. The other living specimen, sex also unknown, lives in Dong Mo Lake west of Hanoi.
Rafetus is Vietnam's most celebrated turtle. Nicknamed the "Sword Lake" turtle, legend has it that a magical sword used by Vietnam's ruler in the 15th century to defeat an invading Chinese army was returned to the Golden Turtle God in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake. The last Hoan Kiem Lake turtle, a large male possibly over 100 years old, died in January 2016.
"China and Vietnam are the two countries that hold the fate of this animal in their hands. That they are now willing to set aside centuries of cultural and geopolitical animosity to unite to save is inspiration for conservation everywhere," said Rick Hills, Executive Director of the Turtle Survival Alliance.
Despite its legendary status and impressive size – adults can weigh over 150kg (330 lbs) - Rafetus has not fared well. Once found throughout the Yangtze and Red River basins, it has been wiped out by habitat loss from dam construction and was hunted heavily for local food consumption in the latter decades of the 20th century.
At a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) earlier this year, China suggested the collaboration with Vietnam. Vietnam's Agriculture Ministry said in Monday's announcement that this is "a great and practical opportunity for breeding and protecting the species," calling on specialists from both sides to hold discussions. According Hoang Van Ha of the Asian Turtle Program, "if either of the individuals in Dong Mo or Xuan Khanh Lakes are male, they could be matched with the female in Suzhou Zoo in China."
Since 2003, the Asian Turtle Program has attempted to locate additional living animals by conducting surveys of locals in northern Vietnam, with limited success. The April sighting was confirmed in part via state-of-the-art environmental DNA (eDNA) testing of the Dong Mo Lake turtle, as refined by Dr. Caren Goldberg of Washington State University. Further eDNA testing to find additional wild animals is ongoing.
The hope is that all wild Rafetus may be brought together in a controlled environment for captive breeding. Several organizations and governmental support are behind these efforts. Vietnam's Biodiversity Conservation Agency of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, Fisheries Department, and Forest Protection Department back the surveys. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, Turtle Conservation Fund, Washington State University, the IUCN, and Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, British Chelonia Group and private donors support the eDNA analysis. New York's Wildlife Conservation Society, the Leibniz Institute for Zoo & Wildlife Research in Berlin, San Diego Zoo Global, the Suzhou Zoo, Changsha Zoo, WCS-China, and the China Zoo Society are actively involved in the artificial insemination efforts.