Slow and steady losing the race

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New wounds open old fears about survival of legendary Hoan Kiem Lake turtle


This photo taken on December 30 shows new injuries on the neck of the Hoan Kiem Lake turtle, according to Ha Dinh Duc, who has kept a close watch on the conditions of the giant soft-shell species since 1991

Vietnam's only living animal deity could be in mortal danger.

Already bearing multiple scars caused by pollution and illegal fishing at Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake, the giant soft-shell turtle has sustained fresh injuries to its neck and carapace, said Ha Dinh Duc, a Vietnamese scientist who has been studying the giant species and kept a close watch on its conditions since 1991.

The rare soft-shell turtle has played a crucial role in Vietnamese lore for more than 2,000 years. There are only four confirmed members of the species left in the world two living wild in Vietnamese lakes and a captive pair in China.

The Hoan Kiem Lake turtles are traditionally viewed as manifestations of the Golden Turtle God, or Kim Qui. Legend has it over the last two millennia, they have helped design fortifications, thwart enemy armies and produce a number of enchanted weapons.

Duc claims that the Hoan Kiem Lake turtle is around 700 years old and the last survivor of a species called Rafetus leloii. Several other scientists have argued, however, that the creature is a 120-year-old Rafetus swinhoei.

Despite its cultural, historical and ecological significance, the Hoan Kiem Lake turtle species is facing an increasingly precarious future, and many people are concerned.

"I was heart-broken seeing the condition of the turtle. Why has nothing been done to rescue such a historic symbol of the nation?" said a Hanoian who refused to be named. "The turtle should be preserved for future generations."

But while conservationists are still debating what should be done to protect the country's endangered deity, authorities concerned have maintained that the preservation of the animal is an issue they need to approach very carefully.

"This is a sensitive issue," said Le Xuan Rao, director of Hanoi's Department of Science, Technology, and Environment. "It needs thorough consideration before agencies concerned are able to come up with feasible solutions to protect the [Hoan Kiem Lake] turtle," Rao was quoted by the Tuoi Tre newspaper as saying on Tuesday (January 4).

This has angered conservationists who fear the giant turtle has no time to wait.

"The injuries found on December 30 were probably the most severe ones the turtle has suffered in the last two decades," said Duc.

"I don't know why the authorities have kept saying they need more time to work out the solution," Duc said. "I'm afraid when they are finally able to do something, it would be too late."

In the dark

While awaiting the final decision from the authorities, international and Vietnamese experts have remained at odds on how to protect the giant creature.

The recent photograph of a red-eared slider clinging to the giant turtle's carapace had Duc frantically calling for immediate destruction of the invasive species.

"Their impacts on the giant turtle are obvious," Duc said, adding that he had been warning against the invasion of red eared sliders in Hoan Kiem Lake since 2004.

But this argument has been met with skepticism by international experts who said the red-eared sliders are not the biggest issue.

"I find it very unlikely that red-eared sliders would attack a larger animal. They're more likely to eat dead meat or dead fish in the lake or other vegetation," said Tim McCormack, a coordinator at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo's Asian

Turtle Program, a conservation network that seeks to develop and promote turtle conservation efforts in Asia.

McCormack also said that the photo of the red-eared slider piggyback on the Hoan Kiem turtle last month just looked like the smaller species trying to collect the body heat of the larger one to stay warm on a cold day.

"It's more likely that the [larger] animal sustained injuries or has injured itself [on something else] in the lake," McCormack said. "It's difficult to tell from the photo."

Douglas Hendrie, technical advisor for the local conservation group Education for Nature-Vietnam (ENV), backed McCormack's stand. "Red-eared sliders are the most hated animals nowadays. But in Vietnam, they are not a major threat [to the Hoan Kiem Lake turtle]."

International conservationists also shrugged off Duc's idea to catch the species and treat it.

"Catching a large turtle is not easy you risk injuring or killing the animal when you try to catch it," said McCormack. "The longer you keep it in captivity, the more chance for the animal to develop additional problems. Moving an animal into captivity needs to be carefully planned."

"The turtle has survived many years in that lake. Pollution, people, disease, all around [but] it has done well. Why mess with a good thing?" said ENV's Hendrie.

Both McCormack and Hendrie concurred that more experienced international experts should be brought in to resolve the issue. McCormack added he would ask for advice from international experts who had helped to move a turtle in China.

"At this stage, I would say leave the animal, monitor the situation, and people should try to take more photos to see if the injuries are increasing in size," McCormack said. "Meanwhile, dozens of people are working around Hoan Kiem Lake security guards and the police it should be easy to limit littering and fishing [there]."

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