Archive for category Sword Lake Turtle
Since January 19th, when rumors about the death of the Hoàn Kiếm Turtle first surfaced, the Turtle Survival Alliance has now confirmed that indeed the lone Swinhoe’s (or Yangtze) soft-shell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) that resided in Hoàn Kiếm Lake in central Hanoi, Vietnam, was found floating dead in the lake Tuesday. The passing of this individual makes the situation even more dire for the remaining three turtles, which together represent the last and only known individuals in existence of this, the world’s rarest freshwater turtle.
The Swinhoe’s softshell turtle had long been famous for it role in Vietnamese legend as the fabled Sword Lake Turtle that inhabited Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Of the handful of Swinhoe’s softshell turtles known to scientists to exist in the wild or captivity in recent years, five had died since the 1990s, leaving only four remaining: one in Hoàn Kiếm Lake, one in the wild in Đồng Mỏ Lake west of Hanoi, and two in captivity, the latter now both part of the Suzhou Zoo’s captive breeding program.
Since 2008, when the Changsha Zoo’s female, “China Girl,” was relocated to Suzhou, scientists at Suzhou Zoo have undertaken a captive breeding program with their older male turtle. But despite repeated bouts of courtship displays and mating between the pair in the years since, the resulting eggs have failed to hatch.
With the passing of this lonely, legendary turtle, it is perhaps fitting to remember it today more than ever through the legend that made it a cornerstone of Vietnamese mythology, a fairytale hero to Vietnamese schoolchildren, and an omen of good luck to all who were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the turtle surfacing in Hoàn Kiếm Lake over the years.
The following retelling is from the 2012 article I prepared on the history and natural history of this species in the journal Bibliotheca Herpetologica, and is excerpted here, below (a citation and link to the full article are provided below).
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).
With news coverage of this year’s attempts to breed Swinhoe’s soft-shell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), the world’s rarest freshwater turtle, hitting the pages of the New York Times this month, it would appear scientists aren’t the only ones tuning in to see what fate his in store for a species for which there are only four individuals known to exist in the wild or captivity today.
Swinhoe’s softshell turtle has long been famous for it role in Vietnamese legend as the fabled Sword Lake Turtle, which inhabits Hoàn Kiếm Lake (“The Lake of the Returned Sword”) in Hanoi, Vietnam. But of the handful of Swinhoe’s softshell turtles known to scientists to exist in the wild or captivity in recent years, five have died since the 1990s, leaving only four remaining: one in Hoàn Kiếm Lake, one in the wild in Đồng Mỏ Lake west of Hanoi, and two in captivity, the latter now both part of the Suzhou Zoo’s captive breeding program.
Since 2008, when the Changsha Zoo’s female, “China Girl,” was relocated to Suzhou, scientists at Suzhou Zoo have undertaken a captive breeding program with their older male turtle. But despite repeated bouts of courtship displays and mating between the pair in the years since, the resulting eggs have failed to hatch. Remediative actions to date, including steps to improve their diet by constructing a glass wall to prevent visitors from tossing junk food into their inclosure, provisioning the pair with a more natural diet (e.g. whole shrimp, freshwater crayfish, fishes, freshwater snails, frogs, quail, pigeons), and redesigning their enclosure to allow the pair more time together, have proven unsuccessful.
After the Suzhou Zoo’s captive breeding program reported last fall that their male may be infertile, the future of the program and the species were both at risk. In a move that lets slip their growing concern for the species’ survival, researchers this spring attempted what had until recently been considered by stakeholders too controversial – artificial insemination.
On May 6th, herpetologists Gerald Kuchling with the Turtle Survival Alliance and Lu Shunqing with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s China branch, together with a team of specialists, anesthetized the Suzhou male and – with a stack of car tires as an examination table – used an electrical probe to extract sperm. In doing so, the team was also able to closely examine the male’s penis and found that it had been mangled, possibly during an ill-fated encounter with a second captive male several years ago.
Although the sperm showed low motility, they were otherwise deemed viable and were deposited in the sedated female’s oviducts. However, with so little known about the reproductive physiology of turtles and tortoises, much less the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, only time will tell whether this year’s attempt proves successful.
Given that there are only four of the world’s rarest freshwater turtle, Swinhoe’s soft-shell turtle’s (Rafetus swinhoei), known to exist in the wild or captivity today, the news this fall from the Suzhou Zoo’s captive breeding program that their male may be infertile has forced researchers to reconsider the program’s future.
Not only is it the rarest freshwater turtle species, Swinhoe’s softshell turtle is also famous for it role in Vietnamese legend as the fabled Sword Lake Turtle, which inhabits Hoàn Kiếm Lake (“The Lake of the Returned Sword”) in Hanoi, Vietnam. But of the handful of Swinhoe’s softshell turtles known to scientists to exist in the wild or captivity in recent years, five have died since the 1990s, leaving only four remaining: one in Hoàn Kiếm Lake, one in the wild in Đồng Mỏ Lake west of Hanoi, and two in captivity, the latter now both part of the Suzhou Zoo’s captive breeding program.
Since 2008, when the Changsha Zoo’s female, “China Girl,” was relocated to Suzhou, scientists at Suzhou Zoo have undertaken a captive breeding program with their older male turtle. But despite repeated bouts of courtship displays and mating between the pair in the years since, the resulting eggs – this year’s, too – have failed to hatch. Remediative actions to date, including steps to improve their diet by constructing a glass wall to prevent visitors from tossing junk food into their inclosure, provisioning the pair with a more natural diet (e.g. whole shrimp, freshwater crayfish, fishes, freshwater snails, frogs, quail, pigeons), and redesigning their enclosure to allow the pair more time together, have proven unsuccessful.
This fall with the support of the Turtle Survival Alliance, Kaitlin Croyle, a research assistant with the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, visited the Suzhou Zoo to remove the yolk membranes of fresh laid eggs and examine them microscopically for sperm, a technique known as ovo sperm detection. Croyle was unable to detect sperm, confirming what many have long suspected, that the male is likely infertile.
Despite this setback, with the permission of Chinese officials Rafetus stakeholders are instead exploring the option of artificial insemination. But to do so, they need a new male Swinhoe’s softshell turtle. To this end, herpetologist Gerald Kuchling is following up on anecdotal observations of possible Swinhoe’s in the Red River in Yunnan Province, China. There, Dr. Kuchling and Dr. Rao Dingqi at the Kunming Institute of Zoology are using collapsible “cathedral traps” designed to trap deep waters, but which are also buoyant enough to allow turtles to surface and breath. Unfortunately, scientists aren’t the only ones interested in catching Swinhoe’s soft-shell turtles. Locals and fisherman see the turtles as food. According to an August 2014 update by Kuchling in the Turtle Survival Alliance’s magazine, Turtle Survival, “There is a real danger that the last wild R. swinhoei in China could end up at a banquet rather than in a breeding program.”
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.
Rafetus: 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.
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.