Experts still divided on ways to treat turtle too old and special for conservation efforts
The badly injured giant soft-shell turtle living in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake, pictured here on February 8, is said to be one of four remaining Rafetus swinhoei specimens in the world. The photograph has initiated a new round of talks on ways to treat its injuries and improve its habitat.
As local and international experts scratch their heads on ways to save an extremely rare and injured giant soft-shell turtle in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake, it looks set to take its unique cultural and legendary status to its grave sometime over the next decade.
One agreement that has been reached among the scientists is that the environment in the 12- hectare lake needs improving.
"I don't think there is any one single solution. I think improving the habitat or improving the quality of the environment in the lake is one of the first things that should be done," said Timothy McCormack, a coordinator with the Cleveland Metropark Zoo's Asian Turtle Program.
"During the dry season, I think the water level is very low. The pollution makes it seem a lot worse. So you can add more water into the lake to increase the water level and reduce the pollution," he told Thanh Nien Weekly on the phone.
It is generally accepted that there are only four confirmed members of the species (Rafetus swinhoei) left in the world two living wild in Vietnamese lakes Hoan Kiem and Dong Mo and a captive pair in China that have, so far, failed to produce fertile eggs. One Vietnamese scientist in the forefront of efforts to save the Hoan Kiem turtle, Ha Dinh Duc, has claimed it is the only member of a new species.
The rare soft-shell turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake has played a hugely important role in Vietnamese lore for more than 2,000 years. 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 that they have helped design fortifications, thwart enemy armies and produced a number of enchanted weapons.
Photos of the turtle over the past months showed multiple injuries on its neck and carapace, which pushed Hanoi authorities and scientists to rush for solutions to save the animal.
At a workshop on the issue in Hanoi on Tuesday (February 15), scientists continued to differ over the healing methods - removing the turtle from the lake to treat its injuries or remaining content with improving pollution in the lake.
Phan Thi Van of the Research Institute for Aquaculture proposed that the turtle be removed to an enclosed body of water and its injuries treated before it is released back into the Hoan Kiem Lake. Kim Van Van of the Agriculture University agreed with Van, adding that the lake should be dredged and cleaned.
However, McCormack argued that this could harm the animal.
"For the Hoan Kiem turtle, [although] the lake is really polluted, it has been there for many years. It is almost used to that water. If you remove the animal and move it to somewhere else, to a small enclosure maybe with clean water, it may actually make the situation worse," he told Thanh Nien Weekly.
Conservationists said that due to the advanced age and cultural significance of the Hoan Kiem turtle, it is not considered a candidate for breeding or conserving.
"Given its "˜God' status, the idea of capturing it to check its sex was a non-starter," said American Douglas Hendrie, technical advisor for the local conservation group Education for Nature-Vietnam. "So what we have here is a potentially sad tale. The Hoan Kiem turtle is old [and] it will die in that lake at some point, probably over the next decade," said Hendrie.
"I fear that its cultural value far overshadows conservation interests and concerns, even to the point of allowing the turtle to die without replacement... and thus, the Hoan Kiem turtle does not factor into conservation at this time."
Given this situation, conservationists have turned their attention 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, they say.
Duc, the Vietnamese scientist who has been monitoring the Hoan Kiem turtle for decades, said he would go ahead with his fight for the survival of the giant species.
Despite some remaining rifts with international experts on the issue, Duc has earned their admiration for his ardent conservation work.
"Duc is a positive voice for the [Hoan Kiem] turtle... and his life revolves around this turtle," Hendrie said. "His heart is in the right place."
Duc said his relentless conservation efforts have never burnt him out. The only thing worrying Duc was that he was getting old and no one seemed to be prepared to take over his job, he said.
"I have trained some people to work in the turtle conservation field. But they all ended up landing other jobs," Duc said. "The modern life has made people more and more pragmatic."
Will Duc's idealism be pragmatic enough to save the turtle? Animal lovers in general and admirers of the Hoan Kiem turtle in particular are keeping their fingers crossed.