Archive for category Sword Lake Turtle

Chelonian Conservation and Biology: Surveying for Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle

In recent years, the Swinhoei’s softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) has risen to fame in part because of its renown as the rarest freshwater turtle in the world (there are only four Swinhoe’s softshell turtles known to exist in the wild or captivity today), not to mention its prominent role as the famed Sword Lake Turtle of Vietnamese legend. Writing in the July 2013 issue of Chelonian Conservation and Biology, a team of Chinese researchers published the results of a four-year survey of villagers living along the Upper Red River, China, to determine the historical distribution of the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle and characterize suitable habitat where conservation efforts should be focused.

Following previous investigations that have narrowed the historical range of the species to the Song Hong (Red River) drainage in eastern China and northern Vietnam, the lower Yangtze (Yangtze River) drainage in eastern China, and the Song Ma (Ma River) drainage in northern Vietnam, the researchers concentrated their survey effort within the Upper Red River, where the present-day range of this giant softshell turtle is thought to be restricted today. Through questionnaires and oral interviews, which included testing interviewees’ abilities to positively identify local turtle species, the researchers canvassed more than 1,000 college students, fishery and wildlife managers, fishermen, turtle farmers, traders, restaurant keepers, and education/government officials across 38 counties, 3 provinces, and 82 communities (from towns to villages).

In general, the researchers found that the younger respondents (i.e. college students) knew little of any giant softshell turtles, while Dai/Thai villagers along the Red River and its tributaries had longer memories of a turtle they called either dao or wu gui (“black hardshell turtle”) or hua tou mei (“spotted head turtle”), all of which were positively identified as Swinhoe’s softshell turtles based on careful descriptions of the turtles and the inspection of skeletal remains. Following the intense pressures of commercial fisheries for softshell turtles in the region, by the late 1990s, specimens tentatively identified from photographs as Swinhoei’s softshell turtles caught using rolling-hook and electroshock fishing had become increasingly rare.

Through a comparison of habitat characteristics between the 33 documented capture/witness locations and 33 random contrasting plots using Google Earth, the researchers were able to characterize those characteristics that appeared to favor Swinhoe’s softshell turtle presence. These features include sandbars, necessary for basking and nesting, and tributary/main river confluences, which provide abundant food and create deep water as well as sandbars. The researchers also addressed the influence dams may have on surviving indivuals, citing the deleterious effects of reduced flows, habitat and population fragmentation, anomalous floods, lower water temperatures, and sandbar degradation. Sadly, the researchers note that of the 33 capture/witness locations, 29 are subject to flood following the erection of five dams slated for construction. The remaining four sites are at the mercy of a sixth proposed dam that, if constructed, could remove the last remaining high priority habitat suitable for Swinhoe’s softshell turtle.

Full Citation: Wang Jian, Shi Hai-Tao, Wen Cheng, and Han Lian-Xian. 2013. Habitat Selection and Conservation Suggestions for the Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) in the Upper Red River, China. Chelonian Conservation and Biology: July 2013, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 177-184.

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Book Review: Rafetus

RAFETUS-cover-front-JPEGRafetus: The Curve of Extinction, by Peter C. H. Pritchard, Living Arts Publishing (www.livingartspublishing.com), 2012, 173 pages, $65.00.

In recent years, there has been a well-deserved groundswell of interest in what has been called the rarest freshwater turtle species in the world, Swinhoe’s softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei). Some of the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle’s fame stems from it featuring prominently in Vietnamese legend as the fabled Sword Lake Turtle, which inhabits Hoàn Kiếm Lake (“The Lake of the Returned Sword”) in Hanoi, Vietnam. But more important than its legendary status is its rarity. There are only four Swinhoe’s softshell turtles known to exist in the wild or captivity – much like Lonesome George, hailed the last remaining Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii) before George’s passing in 2012.

Not so long ago, in late 2007 the Hoàn Kiếm turtle was one of only three Swinhoe’s softshell turtles in existence: Vietnam’s Sword Lake Turtle, plus two known from China – an older male on display at the Suzhou Zoo and a recently re-discovered female, “China Girl,” part of the Changsha Zoo’s, collection. Of the eight Swinhoe’s softshell turtles known to scientists to exist in the wild or captivity in the preceding years, the remaining five had died since the 1990s: two in the West Garden Buddhist temple in Suzhou; one in the Suzhou Zoo; one in the Shanghai Zoo; and one in the Beijing Zoo. The following year, experts from Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s Asian Turtle Program and Education for Nature-Vietnam announced in April 2008 that they had successfully photographed and confirmed a second wild individual – the fourth of its kind alive today in the wild or captivity – west of Hanoi in Đồng Mỏ Lake. Their discovery quickly turned bittersweet when later that year, the prodigal turtle disappeared after floods washed out Đồng Mỏ’s dam, only to reappear weeks later in the possession of a local fisherman who announced his intent to sell the turtle to a local Hanoi restaurateur. The fisherman eventually turned the turtle over to authorities, who returned it safely to the lake.

In recent years, the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle has repeatedly made international news: first with the capture of Hoàn Kiếm’s Sword Lake Turtle for medical treatment in 2011, after it was reported that the individual was showing signs of stress and illness, and second with the pairing of the Suzhou Zoo male with Changsha Zoo’s China Girl as part of an as-yet-unsuccessful captive breeding program that has been underway since 2008. Swinhoe’s softshell turtle has quickly become as famous as it is rare, joining Lonesome George as a poster child for the growing legion of the lost, those species on the edge of extinction.

Renown herpetologist Peter C. H. Pritchard sets out to tell “the story of the giant softshell turtle of the Yangtze and Red Rivers” in Rafetus: The Curve of Extinction, from the inception of the Sword Lake Turtle legend to Western science’s discovery and description of Rafetus swinhoei to the species’ present-day plight as the purported largest and rarest freshwater turtle. Books such as this are no small undertaking, especially if you consider that the bulk of the material is based on Pritchard’s extensive years in the field inspecting and verifying zoological and museum specimens, in situ interviews with fisherman and other locals, and boots-on-the-ground surveys of the turtle’s haunts. Few others have dedicated themselves to such an intimate understanding of this elusive turtle and learned so much in so little time. This tome is truly a testament to Pritchard’s passion for Rafetus swinhoei.

Despite everything Rafetus: The Curve of Extinction has going for it, where this book suffers most is in the layout/design and editing. Structurally, the book itself is sound: a sturdy hardcover, gold embossed spine, and heavy glossy paper stock. The gorgeous artwork of Tell Hicks’ Rafetus swinhoei pair gracing the front and rear endpapers is icing on the cake. But it becomes apparent as early as the Table of Contents, where the chapters are divided into three unnamed parts (might I suggest Part 1: Trionyx, the Soft-shelled Turtles; Part 2: Rafetus swinhoei, A Species New to Science; and Part 3: Natural History and Conservation), that there is an aimlessness to the journey on which you are about to embark.

In general, this aimlessness manifests itself most prevalently in the book’s layout/design. For example, on any given page paragraphs are set apart from each other by a yawning chasm of space, giving the impression that each paragraph is afloat on the page. Pick up any coffee-table-style book (I just flipped through a stack of five) or text book and you’ll see that an indented first line is enough to do the trick. Admittedly, this is more a preference than a fatal flaw, but it contributes to a second issue whereby the flow of the narrative is further occluded and aggravated by a lack of consistency in editorial conventions. Take, for instance, the haphazard manner in which long passages of quoted material is presented. Instead of following the standard practice of indenting long quotations from the left margin, here long quoted passages (excerpted emails or journal articles) are instead called out from the text with nothing but a pair of quotation marks and, if lucky, a colon for punctuation. When significant chunks of material are quoted over the span of several pages, the reader is left to feel their way blindly through the text to find the change in narrative voice or the end-quotes (Chapters 2 and 6 are repeat offenders on this count). Elsewhere, however, long passages are presented almost like side-bars, as is done with the essay (??) “When Turtles Had Teeth” in Chapter 1, although in some cases purported side-bars (see “History, Mythology, and Biology Come Together”, Chapter 10) bleed back into the text.

Along these same disjunct lines, the list of publications in Chapter 5 (appropriately titled, “A Mass of Confusion”) where Rafetus has been referenced over the years is a jumbled mess, a morass of what-appear-to-be-paragraphs-that-should-be-a-bulleted-list that includes publications that don’t even mention Rafetus after all (!!), while the battery of rare and large turtles described in Chapter 8 are separated by the character set “–ooOoo–” (which I’ve been told is a legacy typesetter’s convention for section breaks) instead of headers or subheaders, which themselves rarely make an appearance.

And then there are the typos – for example: “Was the offending person. [sic] a humble secretary” (p 37); “the special [correction: "species"] of the turtle that lays them” (p 42); “dozens of men waded ino [correction: "into"] the water” (p 116); “a second animal in Dong Ho [correction: "Dong Mo"] Lake” (p 136) – as well as photos absent captions (p 27) and the suite of spacing and formatting gaffes that riddle the pages. Speaking of photo captions, the illustration on page 148 innocuously captioned “The juvenile Rafetus specimen” is surely misplaced and underwhelmingly captioned. By proximity alone, the only mention of a juvenile Rafetus in the surrounding pages is that of the remains of a turtle caught and butchered by a Vietnamese fisherman. In truth, the illustration is none other than a detail taken from an engraving of the original holotype specimen (reproduced below), which first appeared in zoologist John Edward Gray’s 1873 description of Rafetus swinhoei under the synonym Oscaria swinhoei. That alone is a pedigree worth mentioning.

The annals and magazine of natural history : zoology, botany, an

Unfortunately, at times this aimlessness also carries over into the narrative. Between and within chapters, time and space are fluid, jumping back and forth between past and present events. Admittedly, Rafetus swinhoei‘s story is a convoluted one, further complicated by several hundred years of nomenclatural confusion, a full cast of players, and a dearth of data. But it is for that very reason that the reader should expect nothing less from this narrative than for Pritchard to sort the confusion out for us. Instead, occasions for travel are left undated and timelines bend, leaving the reader at best discombobulated.

Retelling the history of the Hoàn Kiếm Lake’s turtles (Chapter 10), for example, Pritchard casually backs into describing the controversy surrounding the efforts to protect the Sword Lake Turtle without tipping his hat that the multiple attempts to capture and treat the turtle took place in 2011, and then “fast foward[s]” to an April 14th, 2011 email from a colleague describing the measurements and health of the individual now in custody. All without actually explaining to the reader that after several failed attempts, the Sword Lake Turtle was eventually captured on April 3rd, treated, and released back into the lake on July 12th. As another example, while describing his trip to the West Garden Buddhist temple in Suzhou (Chapter 11), I can only say for certain that Pritchard’s visit occurred pre-2008 – the year the West Garden Rafetus died.

At other points in the book, the text teeters dangerously on the brink of filler material. Take the dispensable, non-sequiturial Chapter 7 “Museums Old and New”, in which the only two references at all to Rafetus swinhoei appear in the first and last paragraphs of the chapter. Sandwiched between them are four pages that spasm between the nature and flavor of Chinese natural history museums, museum curators and specimen catalogs, the author reflecting on visits to the British Natural History Museum (and other museums) as a youth, museum restoration and revitalization, and Chinese government sponsored biological museum exhibits on AIDS and sexual hygiene. All to say, “I visited the Municipal Museum in Hangzhou, and among the many softshell turtle specimens I examined was a single mislabeled Rafetus swhinoei – Success!”

The twenty-five pages devoted to Chapter 8 “The Rarest and Largest Freshwater Turtle?” either argue or illustrate the point (which camp Pritchard belongs to isn’t outwardly clear) that Rafetus swinhoei is or isn’t the rarest freshwater turtle and the largest freshwater turtle, claims perpetuated in contemporary magazines, newsletters, newspapers, and journal articles. It has always been clear to me that implied in these claims is the unspoken qualifier “…living today”. If they instead meant “…of all time” or “…living or extinct”, that would be a qualification worth spelling out to drive their point home. Pritchard instead muddies the waters by reviewing a bale of extant and extinct turtle species – sprinkled with a tortoise here and there – and waxes academic unnecessarily on the nature of rarity. Yes, there are no shortage of rare turtles and tortoises: some are scarce, some are cryptic, some are extinct. But it seems only natural that the candidate for “rarest turtle” should be the one with the fewest confirmed individuals known in the wild or captivity. For now, there are four Rafetus swinhoei known to exist in the wild and captivity in China and Vietnam. Years of searching for more specimens has turned up nothing but whispers and legends, stories and bones. Unless there is a freshwater turtle lonelier than that, I think Rafetus swinhoei is a shoe-in. And to answer the question about the “largest freshwater turtle”, Pritchard concludes in Chapter 8 that soft-shell turtles of the genus Chitra rank the largest of the freshwater turtles, only to upend that claim in Chapter 10 after reporting that the Hoàn Kiếm turtle in Hanoi, Vietnam – measured following its April 2011 capture – is larger than any Chitra by 3 cm (1 inch).

If I seem frustrated by this book, it is because I am. I want to love this book, and to be honest – despite any criticism I may have about the book’s nuts and bolts or the meandering nature of the narrative – I am still willing to see the forest for the trees. Rafetus: The Curve of Extinction could as easily be a call to arms to protect the world’s rarest freshwater turtle species as much as it is this species’ last will and testament. Pritchard’s work should be commended for accomplishing what no other has done for this lonely turtle. He alone has dedicated years of his life to track down those very same whispers and legends, stories and bones upon which this book was built. If only every species had so stalwart a champion, perhaps there would be fewer species on extinction’s brink.

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Bibliotheca Herpetologica: The Legendary Sword Lake Turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake

It was five years ago that I first read about the rarest freshwater turtle in the world – the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) – known from Hoàn Kiếm Lake (“The Lake of the Returned Sword”) in Hanoi, Vietnam. In late 2007, the Hoàn Kiếm turtle was one of only three Swinhoe’s softshell turtles in existence, the remaining two were known from China: an older male on display at the Suzhou Zoo and a recently re-discovered female, “China Girl,” part of the Changsha Zoo’s, collection. Of the eight Swinhoe’s softshell turtles known to scientists in the wild or captivity in the preceding years, the remaining five had died since the 1990s: two in the West Garden Buddhist temple in Suzhou; one in the Suzhou Zoo; one in the Shanghai Zoo; and one in the Beijing Zoo.

That there might be only three of its species left in the world was remarkable. But what made the Hoàn Kiếm turtle especially unique was that this very turtle was purported to be over 600 years old. According to legend, in ages past this legendary turtle was once the messenger of the Dragon King, who bade the turtle deliver a sword to a farmer to help the Vietnamese people vanquish their Chinese invaders. Armed with this mystical sword, the farmer Lê Lợi gathered an army and overthrew their oppressors. Not long after Lê Lợi became king, he was boating on Lục Thuy Lake (today’s Hoàn Kiếm Lake) when the turtle returned to retrieve the blade.

And so it was that when a giant soft-shelled turtle began appearing in Hoàn Kiếm Lake after a centuries-long hiatus, onlookers – and the world – took notice. I did too.

The following year, experts from Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s Asian Turtle Program and Education for Nature-Vietnam announced in April 2008 that they had successfully photographed and confirmed a second wild individual – the fourth of its kind alive today in the wild or captivity – west of Hanoi in Đồng Mỏ Lake. Later that year, the prodigal turtle disappeared after floods washed out Đồng Mỏ’s dam, only to reappear weeks later in the possession of a local fisherman, who announced his intent to sell the turtle to a local Hanoi restaurateur. The fisherman eventually turned the turtle over to authorities, who returned it safely to the lake.

That same year, Swinhoe’s softshell turtle stakeholders came together to initiate a captive breeding program between Changsha Zoo’s China Girl and the Suzhou Zoo’s male. To their credit, the program has continued to this day but, despite repeated pairings and the more than 100 eggs laid each season, none have successfully hatched to date.

In 2011, the Hoàn Kiếm turtle again made headlines when it began to develop lesions and other signs of injury. After much debate, on April 3rd, 2011 the turtle was captured and isolated on an island at the heart of Hoàn Kiếm Lake for medical treatment. It has since been released after its recovery, and efforts are underway to clean up the lake.

Five years ago, I took it upon myself to learn more about this unique species and the colorful Arthurian legend-like story it embodied, a project that has culminated this year in the publication of “Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei): The Legendary Sword Lake Turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake,” an article in the journal Bibliotheca Herpetologica (Volume 10, No. 1) that marks the first comprehensive review of the rare Swinhoe’s softshell turtle’s history and natural history and the legend of the Sword Lake Turtle together in the English language for western audiences.

For those interested in the legend itself, I have excerpted it with the journal’s permission below. To learn more about the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle’s history and natural history, I recommend joining the International Society for the History and Bibliography of Herpetology; the standard two-year membership includes a journal subscription beginning with issue 9 (featuring “The Herpetological Legacy of Linnaeus”) as well as issue 10(1) on Swinhoei’s softshell turtle. Individual issues can also be purchased for $7.50 each as instructed here.

The Legend of the Sword Lake Turtle

“In the six-hundred years since the Dragon King first guided the farmer king to victory, the legend of the Sword Lake Turtle has evolved in the telling. The heart of this legend roughly holds true to the historical record. Between 1418 and 1426, after enduring years of violent occupation under an invading force of the Chinese Ming, the farmer Lê Lợi raised an army of 500 volunteer soldiers – the Lam Son army – to free their country.  Although Lê Lợi’s guerilla tactics demoralized and chipped away at the invader’s forces, the Ming occupation persisted (Trang 2006). It is here that the lines between legend and history blur.

As retold by Minh Trang in “Sự Tích Hồ Gươm (The Legend of Sword Lake)” (Trang 2006; see also Asian Turtle Conservation Network 2008), legend has it the Dragon King – witnessing from his underwater palace the Lam Son army’s struggle – sent forth the Golden Turtle (referred to as the “Golden Tortoise” in Trang 2006) to deliver a magical sword blade to Lê Lợi. Whether by design or by accident (here the legend is unclear on all counts), this blade was delivered, not to Lê Lợi, but to a fisherman, Lê Thận. Lê Thận cast his net three times, each time entangling it in the sword blade. It wasn’t until the third cast that Lê Thận, beguiled by the reappearing blade, tucked it in his belt and returned home. Soon thereafter, Lê Thận joined Lê Lợi’s resistance army.

One night, after stopping by Lê Thận’s quarters to visit, Lê Lợi noticed the blade on the wall, which began to glow in his presence. Inspecting the blade, Lê Lợi saw the radiance emanated from two words etched on the blade: “Thuận Thiên” (“Heaven Approves” or “The Will of Heaven”). Several days later, during a retreat of Lê Lợi’s guerilla army before an anticipated Ming attack, the farmer king again saw a strange glow – this time from the canopy of an ancient banyan tree. Upon closer inspection, Lê Lợi saw that it was a sword hilt decorated in gems and etched with the same divine words: “Thuận Thiên.”

When Lê Lợi and Lê Thận next crossed paths, Lê Lợi asked to see the blade; the blade and hilt were a perfect fit. Seeing this as a sign from heaven, Lê Thận knelt before Lê Lợi, bestowed him the sword, and swore his allegiance to the farmer king that he might save their people and their homeland (Trang 2006).

As word of Lê Lợi’s magical sword spread, his Lam Son army grew (Trang 2006, Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008). Backed by a growing resistance some 350,000 soldiers strong, reinforced with horses and elephants, and – by legend’s score – armed with the magical sword that made Lê Lợi grow tall and gave him the strength of many men (Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008), Lê Lợi destroyed the Ming forces and led his people to victory. After years of oppression, in 1427 the Chinese recognized the Vietnamese people’s independence. One year later, Lê Lợi was declared king under the title Lê Thái Tổ, founder of the Lê Dynasty (Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008).

Not long after Lê Lợi became king, he was touring Lục Thuy (“Green Water”) Lake when the Golden Turtle emerged from the waters to retrieve the divine sword. By some accounts, the Golden Turtle asked for the sword’s return and Lê Lợi respectfully complied (Trang 2006); by others the messenger instead plucked it from Lê Lợi’s belt, inciting the king to retrieve it (Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008). In the end, however, Lê Lợi acknowledged the sword’s return to the Dragon King and in tribute, renamed the waters Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, “The Lake of the Returned Sword” (Trang 2006, Friends of Vietnam Heritage 2008)” (Bettelheim 2012).

 

Full Citation: Bettelheim, Matthew P. 2012. Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei): The Legendary Sword Lake Turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake. Bibliotheca Herpetologica 10(1): p 4-20.

Acknowledgements: This work could not have been undertaken without the help of Scott Davis, Balazs Farkas, Uwe Fritz, Richard Gemel, Douglas Hendrie, Gerald Kuchling, Steve Leach, Peter C. H. Pritchard, Clayton Statham, Robert G. Webb, and Roger Bour.

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