Death of last female Yangtze softshell turtle signals end for ‘god’ turtle

Death of last female Yangtze softshell turtle signals end for ‘god’ turtle

  • The last known female Yangtze giant softshell turtle died in April of unknown causes, leaving only two males as the final known living members of a species that has for years been teetering on the brink of extinction.
  • “We are devastated,” says the Asian Turtle Program, an NGO working to protect the Yangtze turtle and its habitat.
  • The only hope for the species lies in the possibility that a few of these giant creatures may still roam, unknown, in lakes and rivers in Vietnam or Laos.

Sometimes, our current mass extinction crisis can be represented by the loss of a single individual.

On April 21, locals spotted a 93-kilogram (205-pound) body in the waters of Dong Mo Lake in northern Vietnam: it was the carcass of the last known female of the Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei).

“We are devastated,” the Asian Turtle Program (ATP) wrote on . “We have spent 17 years working to protect this turtle and its habitat.”

A cause of death hasn’t been released yet, but with her passing, there are only two known Yangtze softshell turtles left in the world, both male. One is in a nearby lake, Xuan Khanh, and the other in Suzhou Zoo in the city of the same name in eastern China. It’s also possible another turtle survives in Dong Mo Lake, but that hasn’t been confirmed. With only two or three survivors left, the Yangtze giant softshell turtle, also known as Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, is arguably the most endangered animal on the planet.

A Yangtze giant softshell turtle in Vietnam. Image by Phuongcacanh via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The Yangtze giant softshell turtle used to live in China’s Red River basin and lower Yangtze River as well as northern Vietnam. It was wiped out across much of its range due to the damming of rivers, destruction of wetlands, overfishing, pollution, and hunting, both for its meat and eggs.

In Vietnamese mythology, the Yangtze giant softshell turtle is a representative of Kim Qui, a turtle god who helped the Vietnamese overthrow the Chinese after a millennium of rule. Hoam Kiem Lake, in modern day Hanoi, was the site where Emperor Lê Lợi was said to have returned a magic sword to the turtle god Kim Qui, after using it to expel the Chinese. A Yangtze giant softshell turtle survived in Hoam Kiem until 2016; today, it is bereft of gods.

The closest living species to the Yangtze river turtle is the Euphrates softshell turtle (Rafetus euphraticus) found in the Euphrates River in West Asia. The IUCN Red List currently categorizes the Euphrates softshell turtle as endangered.

Tim McCormack, the head of the ATP, told Mongabay in 2019 that it’s possible a number of individual Yangtze giant softshell turtles still remain hidden in lakes and rivers in Vietnam and Laos. A female can lay more than 30 eggs in a clutch, and more than one clutch a year, so even a single breeding pair could forestall extinction.

But for that to happen, any remaining turtles need to be found quickly. At that time McCormack said what the group needed most was funding to keep searching for more turtles and then attempt breeding.

An 1873 illustration of a Yangtze giant softshell turtle
An 1873 illustration of a Yangtze giant softshell turtle, which was then called Oscaria swinhoei. Illustration by John Edward Gray and/or G.H. Ford. Image via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

“The species is so rare but if you look at funding and resources available it’s quite limited. If you look at tiger conservation or elephant, you’re talking about millions of dollars being put into it,” he said. “For these species, there’s very little in comparison.”

Scientists estimate that the current rate of extinction globally is 100 to 1,000 higher than the background rate of extinctions that would be expected naturally, putting us squarely in a mass extinction crisis, often dubbed the sixth mass extinction. In response, global governments at the U.N. Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal last year pledged to protect 30% of their land and waters by 2030.

Yet for many species already on the edge of extinction, habitat protection won’t be enough — more direct help and funding is required.

Banner image: A depiction of the Vietnamese legend of Kim Qui, a turtle god who helped the Vietnamese overthrow the Chinese after a millennium of rule, and the Restored Sword (Hoan Kiem), in Hoan Kiem temple. Image by Rdavout via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Killing gods: The last hope for the world’s rarest reptile

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