Asia's giant softshell turtles teeter on the brink extinction

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At the moment, only four members of the Giant Softshell turtle (Rafetus Swinhoei) species exist in the world.

The most well-known is an exalted geriatric specimen of indeterminate sex. It lives a complex existence in the center of Hanoi - addled by fishhooks and confined to Hanoi's polluted Hoan Kiem Lake. It is believed, by some, to be the manifestation of an ancient deity.

Others in the Vietnamese scientific community have argued that it belongs to its own separate sub-species and shouldn't be considered in conservation efforts.

Due to his advanced age and great cultural importance, however, most do not consider him a candidate for breeding.

For a long time, it seemed as though the species would be revived in China, where a male and female pair have been mating in a complex zoo enclosure.

Three consecutive years of breeding efforts have turned up no fertile eggs. Some fear that the world's only remaining female was ruined by the calcium-poor diet she was fed during her 80-year career as a traveling circus and zoo attraction.

But she has been eating well for some time, now.

The more optimistic experts hope that the Chinese male lacks the reproductive oomph required to repopulate the planet. (In his youth, he was injured in a fight with another male).

And so the conservationists have turned their eyes to the Dong Mo Lake a tiny body of water just west of Hanoi where a young, virile male Rafetus Swinhoei is watched over by a team of conservationists and a one-armed fisherman who rents the eastern half of the lake.

This healthy male may be the species' last great hope. Scientists will take another year to search for any wild specimens. If their search turns up nothing by the end of 2011 they will begin to undertake a dicey international matchmaking effort between the Dong Mo male and the captive Chinese circus veteran.

"Ongoing monitoring at Dong Mo Lake through 2011 hopes to confirm additional turtles at this site," said Tim McCormack, program coordinator at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo's Asian Turtle Program. "If this is unsuccessful other options might need to be reviewed."

McCormack says that it would be possible that the male in Dong Mo Lake, weighing 69 kilograms and relatively young and healthy, could breed with the female in China.

"Transportation over such a long distance would take a great deal of planning as would the capture of the animals. Another option is the collection of semen from the male in Vietnam for artificial insemination of the female in China," McCormack said. "This technique would need to be practiced and performed by experts but again might become an option if more turtles are not located in Vietnam."

Peter Pritchard, PhD, one of the world's most prominent experts on chelonians (turtles and tortoises) says he's in the midst of preparing a book on the giant soft shell species.

Pritchard pointed out that even benign efforts to move these turtles around can prove deadly.

His new book will include the story of a father and son in the northern Hoa Binh Province who captured a 121-kilogram specimen in Quynh Lam Lake in 1993.

"They had to call in reinforcements to get it out onto land," said Pritchard, who interviewed the pair. The two men somehow convinced the owner of a motel pool to allow them to create an enclosure for the animal a kind of one-act zoo. The two men spent five days stocking the pool with fresh water and aquatic plants. But before the turtle could be introduced to its enclosure, it died.

"No one deliberately did it any harm," Pritchard said. "But this is a giant aquatic animal and once you start hauling it out onto land..."

The creature's stuffed corpse is now on display at the Hoa Binh Province museum.

During Pritchard's visits to Vietnam, he was impressed with the number of people he encountered who claimed to have seen these animals in the wild. While most of these reports came from old-timers, he said, he did manage to obtain the skeletons of a pair of juveniles, both of which, he says, were collected in the last ten years.

"I doubt if there are any wild ones I couldn't get anecdotes in China," he said. "But I could get them in Vietnam. Who knows what will show up there?"

Turtlepocalypse

The giant soft-shell Rafetus Swinhoei turtle tops Conservation International's list of endangered turtle species. Overall, the agency has warned that freshwater turtles are among the most highly endangered species. The Vietnamese Pond Turtle (Mauremys Annamensis) was also included on the list.

"The world's freshwater turtle populations are being decimated by a perfect storm of habitat loss, hunting and a lucrative pet trade, and urgent action is needed to save them," the organization said in a press release issued early this month.

The new analysis identified a grave decline in many of the world's turtle species as evidence that humanity's management of vital freshwater ecosystems has devastated human and animal populations throughout the world.

"These animals are facing changes to their habitats in particular because of the damming of the rivers where they live for hydro-electricity, on top of hunting for food and a very lucrative trade in rare turtles as pets," said Dr. Peter Paul van Dijk, director of Conservation International's Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Conservation Program.

"More than 40 percent of the planet's freshwater turtle species are threatened with extinction making them among the most threatened groups of animals on the planet," he added.

McCormack of the Asian Turtle Program said that a group of turtles known as the Indochinese Box Turtles are critically endangered and now very rare. Under certain international endangered species conventions, the turtles are still being hunted in Vietnam and traded to China.

Among three species of Indochinese box turtles, Cuora Bourreti and Cuora Picturata only occur in Vietnam and Cuora Galbinifrons also occur in China and Laos, he said, adding that these species have a high risk of becoming extinct in Vietnam but are not protected under local law.

Latest efforts

The Asian Turtle Program (ATP), which has assigned a full-time research team to the conservation of the giant soft-shell turtle, is trying to locate additional animals in the wild. The organization also has a established a local presence at the Dong Mo Lake for future conservation of the species.

A local fisherman, who began living on the eastern half of the lake in 2007, has been enlisted to help monitor the animal. In November 2008, a dam broke sending the Dong Mo turtle out into the Red River, where it was captured by another local fisherman, Nguyen Van Toan.

Toan released the animal back to the authorities the following day and was paid a "financial token" by the conservation NGO, Education for Nature"” Vietnam.

At the moment, the focus appears to be on educating the local populations about the importance of the Dong Mo turtle.

The People's Committee of Son Tay District, where Dong Mo Lake is located, has also worked with ATP to organize community events like presentations and football matches to raise awareness about the species.

"School programs are now being undertaken in local schools to introduce children to the importance of the species," said McCormack of ATP. "The lake's owner and [local] fishermen now claim to support conservation efforts for the turtle."

He also said the organization has completed a poster for distribution throughout the natural range of Rafetus in Vietnam to call for protection of the species.

"This is all positive but still not enough, ideally regular patrols by forest protection department would be expanded with the possibility of ranger stations around the lake supported by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development," he said.

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