I read today of the sad plight of yet another creature on the endangered list – the Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle, and although we, as a people, beat ourselves up and gnash our teeth about the demise of another of our planet’s animals, we have to understand that at one point, it was food for the hungry. And as people built dams, dumped pollution and overfished East Asia’s waterways, they became rarer, the wetlands where they lived were turned into paddy fields for rice growing, and the turtles were pushed even further.
It is a strange-looking creature – with a long flat carapace and squishy body making it look alien, smooth and wet-looking, the biggest ones weighing a stunning 150 to 220 kg. It has a long neck, for periscoping above the surface, mottled flesh, goggly eyes, and a piggy nose. These massive animals were not easy to catch either - not only could mature turtles weigh more than two men combined, but a single bite from their beaked mouth could also rip a person’s flesh clean off. They are described as being very fast and strong.
But it's oddity, rarity and history are what caught my attention. The species is number 20 on the Zoological Society of London’s EDGE list of reptiles. It has one living close relative: the Euphrates Softshell Turtle, which clocks in at 59 on the EDGE list.
In reality, there is only ONE left in captivity, a male, and only two known left in the wild, sex unknown. The only known female died in captivity in 2020, making the search for another female important. With just one healthy pair, the global population could go from three to more than 50 in 12 months, as a female can lay 30 to 40 eggs in one clutch, and more than one clutch a year. The captive male, in China, may be incapable of breeding. In Vietnam, there is one in Dong Mo Lake, but in 2018, another was found nearby in Khanh Lake. It is suspected others may still be hiding in Vietnamese lakes and rivers, and maybe even across the border in Laos. They just need to catch them, and hopefully bring a breeding pair together, before the situation really becomes too late.
Dong Mo Lake is actually a reservoir created when the Red River was dammed more than 40 years ago. The dam is how they suspect the turtles found their way there and got stranded- they’re really river and wetland turtles, and lived in both the Yangtze River in China and the Red River in both China and Vietnam, plus the wetlands. They presumably migrated through the rivers at some point and stayed. The Red River broke its banks in the 1940s, sending many of these turtles into Dong Mo Lake, where they were said to be as common as ‘chickens in the garden’, and nearly all were caught as food for the locals.
They were just consumed locally, but it’s only recently when they became rare that there’s more demand for them, where poachers sell turtle bones for the traditional Chinese medicine market, with one turtle’s bones fetching nearly $2,000.
And the ironic thing is that one former hunter is now a full-time turtle watcher, and if he or any of 50 former fishermen spot one, he calls in the sightings to conservationists.
At the second lake, Khanh, where another of these turtles was spotted, a different strategy was used to find the turtle. After reports and photos of the animals proved inconclusive, they turned to environmental DNA or eDNA. Taking samples of the water, they were able to finally prove one or more lives there.
The turtle has strong Vietnamese mythology, and while the species is not totally gone, it’s close. This is the world’s rarest turtle, but funding for conservation is limited. For tiger or elephant conservation, for example, millions are being put into it. For these turtles, there’s very little in comparison. Most of the money currently comes from grants and zoos, especially Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in the USA.