Lake legend spawns mystery creature

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Experts pooh-pooh claims of another animal spotted in Hoan Kiem Lake


Members of a rescue team stand around a giant freshwater turtle after successfully capturing it in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake last Sunday (April 3). The state established a team of animal experts, veterinarians and conservation workers to capture the rare turtle and administer treatment.

Controversy has given way to mystery following the capture of the turtle with legendary status in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake last Sunday.

It is said that while they were trying to capture the ailing turtle, workers spotted another giant creature surface several times, but foreign experts have expressed strong skepticism about the possibility, calling it "wishful thinking."

As medical treatment gets underway for the captured turtle, scientists say the only hope of sustaining the species and the legend is to have a male turtle in another lake west of Hanoi be taken to China where it can mate with the only female alive.

Most experts believe the Hoan Kiem turtle belongs to a species called Rafetus swinhoei - of which only four members are believed to be left in the world. One lives in the Dong Mo Lake in the west of Hanoi, while two others are being raised in captivity in China.

Meanwhile, Nguyen Ngoc Khoi, general director of KAT, a local company hired to capture the Hoan Kiem turtle, told the media this week that his workers had seen another giant creature surfacing at different places.

"Thinking that there is another [giant turtle] in the lake is just wishful thinking," said Douglas Hendrie, an American technical advisor from Education for Nature - Vietnam (ENV), the country's largest conservation group. "Some people may want to believe so badly that there is another"¦ in the lake, that they actually convince themselves there is."

"If there is another animal there [in Hoan Kiem Lake], my first question is: how did it get in the lake?" said Timothy McCormack, a coordinator with the Asian Turtle Program. McCormack said that the turtle rescued last Sunday has been photographed for a number of years and it is quite easy to distinguish it because of many injuries found on its head, legs, and elsewhere.

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"If there is a new animal in there, I find it very hard to believe it has been hiding for ten, twenty or forty years and just shows itself now. It is more likely that [it] was just recently put in the lake."

Under treatment

Last Sunday, it took at least 50 people, including members of special forces, two hours to net the turtle which was later put in a cage and pulled to a small island in Hoan Kiem Lake. Veterinarians have carried tests to ascertain what is ailing the creature at a makeshift hospital in the lake that was recently expanded and equipped with a small holding tank.

A steering committee has been set up to make decisions about the turtle, believed to be more than a hundred years old, and which weighs around 200kg. The results of the examination are not known.

"Overall, the turtle is doing very well now," said KAT's Khoi.

"I think we'll have to wait and see how serious the injuries are. It looks like a lot of treatment has dealt with the external and visible injuries," McCormack said. "It would be interesting to know if there are any other internal infections."

In recent months the giant creature has made both international and local headlines by surfacing almost twice as frequently as in previous years. Injuries and lesions on its carapace, neck, and legs have been photographed and experts have blamed the lingering pollution and illegal fishing at the lake for the turtle's ailments.

"I really hope that [the treatment] is successful. I hope they will find exactly what is wrong with the turtle," said McCormack.

Both McCormack and ENV's Hendrie concurred that the Hoan Kiem turtle, whose sex is yet to be determined, was too sacred for any kind of breeding program. They pointed instead to the male turtle of the same species living in Dong Mo Lake west of Hanoi.

"Looking at the international breeding program, the animal from Dong Mo would be a perfect candidate. It's quite strong," said McCormack. "Of course people wouldn't want the legend to leave the [Hoan Kiem] lake."

The legend goes that in the 15th century, the turtle handed Emperor Le Loi a magic sword that he used to repel a Chinese invasion. After his victory, Le Loi returned the weapon to the turtle that dived back into the lake with the blade clutched in his mouth. Hoan Kiem literally translates as the "Lake of the Returned Sword."

"For people of older generations like us, the cultural and historical significance of the Hoan Kiem turtle is irrefutable," said Le Chuc, a prominent Hanoian actor and stage director. Chuc said since the turtle was captured, he has dropped by the Hoan Kiem Lake between three to four times everyday to check on it.

"I cannot imagine the day the turtle is not there anymore. Hoan Kiem would be just a lake with water," Chuc said.

"As the world goes through tough times, I pray for the wellbeing of the turtle that is a shining light in this material world."

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