Turtle hurdle

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Successful evasion of capture by Hoan Kiem Lake turtle raises hopes it can be restored to health, but the health of the lake itself is another matter

Hundreds of residents and tourists watched as people using boatsand nets began efforts to capture and treat the legendary turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake on March 8

One attempt to capture the ailing turtle in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake has failed.

But the failure has not disheartened anybody. In fact it has done the opposite. It has given scientists the hope that the turtle, believed to be more than a 100- years-old, has some strength left in it.

 "I would not call it a failure because it may take several tries. It's hard to catch a large, very large soft-shell turtle," said Douglas Hendrie, technical advisor of Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV), a non-governmental conservation organization in Vietnam.

On March 8, thousands of people gathered at the Hoan Kiem Lake as rescuers began efforts to capture the turtle, which is venerated by citizens nationwide, for treatment of apparently severe injuries captured on camera.

The crowd jostled for a place on the shores of the 12-hectare lake to watch divers and rescuers in small boats slowly try to move the turtle with a large net to a nearby islet for treatment.

However, the old animal apparently broke free of the net after a few hours.

Hendrie of ENV, who is an American turtle expert and has lived in Vietnam for 14 years, said that the netting was surely stressful for the turtle. However, he said the escape could be a good sign.

"The turtle does not look good. But I am glad to see how strong it was to escape as it did. This shows that it has some energy left," he told Thanh Nien Weekly.

Experts have said that the turtle, believed to weigh about 200 kilograms (440 pounds), has been injured by fishhooks, an invasion of red-eared slider turtles, sharp objects thrown into the lake, concrete banks and the polluted habitat.

Many experts believe the turtle belongs to a species called Rafetus swinhoei of which only four members are believed to be left in the world. One lives in Dong Mo Lake in the west of Hanoi, while two others are being raised in captivity in China.

Due to its feisty nature and the legendary status it enjoys, the Hoan Kiem turtle has never been taken ashore to measure it or verify its species, gender and age. Local scientist Ha Dinh Duc has steadfastly claimed that the Hoan Kiem turtle is the only member of a new species that he calls Rafetus leloii.

Hendrie said he hoped the injuries seen on the giant soft-shell turtle would not be as serious as it appeared on captured images.

"Let's hope that when they get it out and see the wounds, they are not as serious as they look on camera. If its condition is deemed life threatening, then treatment is the only course of action, but otherwise, authorities might simply choose to put it back," he said.

On February 9, a commission set up by Hanoi authorities to capture the turtle assigned a local trading company KAT Group, which runs an eco-farm with turtles in Hanoi to prepare a new net. The company's director, Nguyen Ngoc Khoi, has said that the net would be larger than the previous one prepared by the municipal Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and would be ready in a week.

Timothy McCormack, a coordinator with the Cleveland Metropark Zoo's Asian Turtle Program, is also optimistic about the rescue work undertaken with a stronger net.

"With such a large turtle as this it is never going to be easy to capture in a 12-ha lake, these animals are powerful and quick in the water. The teams yesterday worked hard and almost had the turtle to the shore when it escaped. If the team has a stronger net they could try again, they were very close," he said.

He advised the use of trap systems, instead of a simple net, to direct the turtle into an area with a drift fence, such as a pound net.

THE LEGEND

Turtles in the Hoan Kiem Lake 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 turtle handed Emporer Le Loi a magic sword which he used to repel a Chinese invasion. After his victory, Le Loi returned the weapon to Kim Qui who dove back into the lake with the blade clutched in his beak.

Hoan Kiem literally translates as the "Lake of the Returned Sword."


A giant turtle which is considered a sacred symbol of Vietnam surfaces at Hoan Kiem lake in the heart of Hanoi on March 7

Rescuing the lake

While trying to capture the turtle, Hanoi authorities are also rushing to clean up the lake that has been severely polluted for decades.

The dredging of the lake began on February 28 and is expected to be completed by March 20. By March 2, up to 4.5 million liters of clean water was supplied to the lake from the Yen Phu Water Supply Station.

Water plants will be put in the lake by March 10 to reduce pollution. Authorities will also inspect restaurants on the lake's banks that have been accused of discharging untreated wastewater into the lake.

Ha Dinh Duc said he has called for efforts to reduce pollution in the Hoan Kiem Lake for many years, but nothing has been done.

Peter Werner of Germany´s Dresden University of Technology said that it would be difficult to maintain a balance of the lake's ecosystem because it is very complex and unique.

"For sure pollution with concrete, trash of any kind, plastic bags and others has to be avoided," he said, adding that activities like littering could kill the turtle. "One of the worst things which could happen will be that the head of the turtle is covered by a plastic bag and it will asphyxiate."

However, Werner said he was more concerned about the water quality in the lake due to a high load of organic substances.

"It mainly originates from leaking wastewater pipe systems around the lake. This discharge of sewage leads to an eutrophication of the lake with the consequence of algae blooming. Algae blooming means that the concentration of the dissolved oxygen is very high during day time and very low (close to zero) during night time.

"This impact is a stress factor for all animals living in the lake. And in extreme situations it can lead to fish dying. Moreover there are toxic algae in the lake, which bloom from time to time. The toxins produced also are the reason for fish dying, as happened two years ago in summer," he said.

Ha Thi Hong Thai, employee of a construction materials trading company in Hanoi, said that rescuing the sacred turtle has become the topic of many conversations in the capital city these days.

Like many locals, she considers the animal a deity.

"It is said that many people have been killed in accidents nationwide since Tet when the turtle was not healthy." Thai said that among the deaths was that of her brother-in-law a tour guide who was killed together with 11 others in the Ha Long Bay boat accident in Quang Ninh Province on February 17.

"I hope cu rua (great grandfather turtle) will live long after receiving medical treatment."

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