Sacred Vietnamese turtle to get enhanced protection

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The legendary Hoan Kiem Turtle and 11 other turtle species should receive enhanced protection in order to ensure their survival, delegates agreed at a CITES conference held in Bangkok from March 3-14.

CITES, formally known as Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, is an international agreement between 178 member governments aimed at protecting wild animals and plants threatened by the international trade of the animals or their body parts.

Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV), a local NGO, announced on its website on March 14 that the Rafetus swinhoei species, which the Hoan Kiem Turtle is believed to belong to, has been transferred from CITES's Appendix III to Appendix II.

Under the convention, Appendix II lists species whose international trade must be strictly regulated to avoid creating conditions which are "incompatible with their survival," although such species are not necessarily on the brink of extinction. Appendix III lists animals which are protected under the laws of a member country that forbids or restricts their exploitation. The cooperation of other member nations is sought in controlling the trade of Appendix III species. 

Rafetus swinhoei is a giant soft-shell turtle species of which there are only four that remain alive two in both Vietnam and China.

One of the four lives in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake. According to a widely popular Vietnamese legend, the turtle is a manifestation of the turtle god that reclaimed from the Le Loi Emperor a magic sword that Dragon King had loaned him to help him repel Chinese invaders.

The sacred turtle has recently sparked a debate between Vietnamese researchers and Ha Dinh Duc, an associate professor of biology and Hoan Kiem Turtle expert, who last January recommended that Hanoi authorities lodge an application for national treasure status for the creature.

Many scientists and officials feel it does not meet criteria stipulated in the Vietnam's Cultural Heritage Law.

Under Vietnamese rules, an object must be original, have a unique appearance and relate to an important historical event or the career of a distinguished national hero in order to be considered a national treasure.

Apart from Hoan Kiem Turtle, three other turtle species including Geoemyda spengleri (black-breasted leaf turtle), Palea steindachneri (wattle-necked soft-shell turtle) and Sacalia quadriocellata (four-eyed turtle) were also transferred to Appendix II from Appendix III.

The big-headed turtle (Platysternon megacephalum) was upgraded from Appendix II to Appendix I, wherein CITES lists all species threatened with extinction and bans their international trade except in authorized circumstances.

Southeast Asia's leaf turtle (Cyclemys oldhamii) and Eastern black-bridged leaf turtle (Cyclemys pulchristriata), previously unlisted, had their names included in Appendix II.

Five others, the Indochinese box and keeled-box turtles; the Chinese three-striped box and yellow-headed temple turtles; and the Vietnamese pond turtle, listed in Appendix II may not be traded commercially. 

The newly upgraded listings represent an important advancement in the control of the trade in Vietnamese freshwater turtles and tortoises, which face multiple dangers including hunting and trading as food, traditional medicine and pets. 

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