Sacred turtle returned to Hanoi lake

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Vietnamese and foreign scientists continue to disagree about the deity's species and sex


A giant soft-shell turtle considered a sacred symbol of Vietnamese independence being guided into a cage for a health check by handlers at Hoan Kiem Lake, in the heart of Hanoi, on April 3. The giant animal was released back to the lake on Tuesday (July 12).

A rare giant turtle was released back to a Hanoi lake on Tuesday (July 12) after more than three months of veterinary treatment and observation.

Questions still remain about the species and gender of the turtle, which is revered as a symbol of Vietnam's protracted struggle for independence.

The animal, believed to be one of only four of the known soft-shell Rafetus swinhoei, had been treated on a specially-built habitat on an islet in Hoan Kiem Lake, said Le Xuan Rao, director of the city's Department of Science and Technology.

"It's in good health. There are no more ulcers on the body," Rao was quoted by the media as saying, a day after the sacred turtle was released back into the 12-hectare (29.6-acre) lake. "It was released after 100 days of treatment, as planned," he said.

On April 3, the turtle was removed from the lake for the first time and put into a holding tank for treatment after citizen photographers began circulating photos of the creature that displayed injuries on its legs and neck. The injuries were believed to have been caused by lingering pollution and illegal fishing at the lake.

It took at least 50 people two hours to net the turtle and transfer it to the island in a rescue coordinated by the Asian Turtle Program.

The turtle weighs about 169 kilograms (372 pounds) and measures 1.6 meter long by 0.8 meter wide.

Rao said that dredging and cleaning the lake will continue to ensure good living habitat for the turtle.

So far, scientists have yet to reach a consensus on the turtle's gender or actual species.

The Hoan Kiem Lake turtles were traditionally believed to be manifestations of the Golden Turtle God, Kim Quy. Over the last two millennia, the deity is said to have helped design fortifications, thwart enemy armies and produce a number of enchanted weapons to Vietnam's rulers.

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At a Hanoi press conference held on April 23, Vietnamese researchers said that DNA tests had confirmed their suspicions that the turtle belongs to a species other than Rafetus swinhoei. Many local scientists say it is a female.

A number of foreign experts beg to differ.

What's in a name?

Hanoi authorities have sent the turtle's DNA sample to a Swiss DNA Bank for further testing. As of press time, the results are still unavailable.

"If the results coincide with our tests, Vietnam can declare the Hoan Kiem turtle a new species and name it Rafetus vietnamensis," a Vietnamese scientist has said.

Meanwhile, other scientists urge Vietnam to focus on taking good care of the legendary turtle rather than identifying its actual species and gender.

Douglas Hendrie, an American technical advisor for Education for Nature-Vietnam, the country's largest conservation group, said he was glad to hear "the world's most famous turtle is back at home."

He urged for more actions to tackle pollution in the lake, including planting aquatic vegetation and improving the islet.

"The Hoan Kiem turtle is without argument a living legend.  Not only is it the most famous turtle in the world, and the rarest turtle in the world, but also culturally significant to Vietnam," Hendrie told Thanh Nien Weekly. "Is it really necessary for us to manipulate science to make it a new species?"

"I think it should be good enough just to appreciate its values as it is, and that we should all accept the conclusion that it is Rafetus swinhoei, until such time that reliable, verified, science proves otherwise, which I believe, will never happen based on the opinions of experts with far more years and expertise in the issue than I," he said.

He said that many hope the Hoan Kiem turtle will turn out to be a new species but this is not likely to be the final conclusion.

"Based on the fact that this is a giant river-dwelling species that inhabited major rivers from northern Vietnam into southern China, there is no clear cause for separation of the species, ecologically, along with the fact that the animals are morphologically identical, and previous testing concludes that Vietnamese Rafetus are the same as Chinese Rafetus, I am left wondering how this issue continues to persist," he said. 

Timothy McCormack, a coordinator at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo's Asian Turtle Program (a network that seeks to develop and promote turtle conservation efforts in Asia), was suspicious about some media coverage that claimed the animal was female.

"It is very difficult to determine the sex of this species. It doesn't follow all of the rules. If you look at smaller animals of different species, it is quite often the case that the males have longer tails"¦ With this species, there are a lot of similarities between the male and female," he said.

He congratulated Vietnam's special veterinary team for its successful treatment of the large animal.

"This time it might have got better and recovered. Next time it might not be so lucky," he said, urging a stricter fishing ban, habitat protection and water quality protection in the lake.

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