Hoan Kiem's endangered deity

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An aging legend struggles for survival in a Hanoi lake

The giant soft-shell turtle living in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake is said to be one of four of the world's remaining Rafetus swinhoei

For more than 2,000 years, the giant soft-shell turtle has played a crucial role in Vietnamese lore. Despite its great cultural importance and dwindling chances of survival, the creature's future remains uncertain as lawmakers have failed to create legal protections for it.

There are only four confirmed members of the species (Rafetus swinhoei) left in the world two living wild in Vietnamese lakes and a captive pair in China that have, so far, failed to produce fertile eggs.

The most famous giant soft-shell, arguably, lives in the Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi where some fear its livelihood is threatened by pollution and fish hooks. As the city prepares for its 1,000 year anniversary, a debate between local officials and conservation experts has emerged over how to protect this aging legend.

The Hoan Kiem Lake turtles were traditionally viewed as manifestations of the Golden Turtle God, or Kim Qui. Over the last two millennia, the deity is said to have helped design fortifications, thwart enemy armies and produce a number of enchanted weapons.

It is said that in the 15th century, the deity handed Emporer Le Loi a magical sword which he used to expel a Chinese occupation. After his victory, Le Loi returned the weapon to Kim Qui who sank back into the lake with the blade clutched in his beak.

Hoan Kiem literally translates as the "lake of the returning sword;" the Tortoise Tower pagoda that occupies a small central island commemorates the legendary loan.

In 1967, a 200-kilogram giant soft-shell died in this 12-hectare lake. It wasn't until the 1990s that sightings of the rare species were reported again in the capital's famed body of water.

Last month, images of the aging turtle addled with fishhooks and old scars were published in local media, sparking some debate about how to best protect the creature.

Dr. Ha Dinh Duc, an assistant professor at Hanoi-based Vietnam National University, called for an immediate rescue of the animal.

"Firstly, we will have to remove the hooks from its shell.... Otherwise, it will have to carry the hooks until they are caught somewhere and a part of the skin will be torn off," he told Tien Phong newspaper.

He also expressed concern about the myriad environmental threats - a simple plastic bag, floating in the lake, could mean the turtle's end, he said.

"Small pawns and fish could hide in such a bag and the turtle would die if it swallowed them," he said.

Duc has estimated that the Hoan Kiem Lake turtle is around 700 years old and is the last survivor of a species called Rafetus Leloii.

Several other scientists have estimated that the creature is a 120-year-old Rafetus swinhoei specimen and should be left alone. They fear that the stress of capture could do more harm to the turtle than good.

All agree, however, that the animal should be afforded the highest possible conservation status. Neither Rafetus swinhoei nor Rafetus Leloii appear on Vietnam's list of protected species.

"I'd like to scratch my own head on that one," said Douglas Hendrie, a technical advisor for the wildlife advocacy NGO, Education for Nature Vietnam. "If this isn't an ideal case for the protection of the species I don't know what it is."

Hendrie guessed that the limited numbers of Rafetus swinhoei and lack of economic significance has rendered them irrelevant to Vietnamese protections.

"Unfortunately," he said. "Everything with wildlife centers around money."

Hendrie says he has been calling for efforts to improve the habitat within the lake specifically for the turtle over the past 12 years.

Meanwhile, an official from the taskforce charged with guarding the lake and a nearby park said his men have seized equipment from illegal fishermen. But the lax laws have failed to deter anglers.

Dr. Peter Paul van Dijk, director of Conservation International's Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Conservation Program told Thanh Nien Weekly, via e-mail, that the turtle has been abraded and scarred from the concrete embankments and other rough objects in its lake for many years, and that "there is no reason to think that it is more serious now than [in the past]."

Van Dijk said that the turtle has been hooked in a location that is not threatening to its life. "I have discussed this with a number of my colleagues inside and outside Vietnam and our consensus is that the stress of trying to capture the turtle to treat it will be worse than leaving the hook in place, where it will rust and break off within months," he added.

Dr. van Dijk advised an enforcement of a fishing ban at Hoan Kiem Lake and improvements of the habitat for the animal.

"Ensure that no further events of hooking or otherwise harming the animal occur, by banning fishing at Hoan Kiem Lake and enforcing this and improvements of the habitat at Hoan Kiem Lake like the creation of a sandy beach, increased vegetation beds to hide, efforts to improve water quality have been suggested by [Ha Dinh] Duc as well as local NGOs (ENV, ATCN/ATP, and others)," he recommended.

The future of Hoan Kiem turtles

A project is currently underway to clean up the water in Hoan Kiem and, while some wonder if a drastic environmental change may trouble its aging resident, most agree that the effort is a step in the right direction.

Several scientists have proffered that the Hoan Kiem turtle is not long for this world.

"I think [it] is living out its last years," Peter Pritchard, PhD, of the Chelonian Research Institute, says. Pritchard is in the process of writing a book on the species. "It's very big and very old indeed."

Conservationists are hoping that an international partnership involving the other wild Vietnamese male and a captive female in China could yield fertile eggs.

If the species can be saved, Dr. Pritchard feels that it wouldn't be a bad idea to reintroduce them in Hoan Kiem.

"It sounds like a pretty crazy place to release them," he said. "But they have been there a long time."

He agrees that some modifications would have to be met perhaps by creating a sandy beach around the island pagoda.

Ultimately, however, he seemed to believe in the protective powers of the Vietnamese public.

"That lake is watched by thousands of pairs of eyes," he said.

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