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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