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We closed out 2020 with a dramatic post about rare Vietnamese reptiles. Frankly, I was not expecting to return to that topic any time soon…yet somehow 2021 already features more Vietnamese reptile news.

Arguably the rarest turtle in the world is the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei). Back in 2019, there were three known living specimens (two in a zoo in China and one in a Vietnamese lake). The female in the Chinese zoo was the only known female and she died in 2019 after an unsuccessful artificial insemination attempt (the male in the Chinese zoo suffers from a heavily damaged external reproductive organ and is unable to procreate without extraordinary assistance from a team of Chinese scientists).

You have probably already gathered that these turtles have lives which would make a soap opera producer say “That is just too far-fetched!” But their romantic lives are not even the more astonishing thing about them. Swinhoe’s softshell turtles are potentially the largest freshwater turtles in the world and used to regularly weigh in at more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds). The largest recorded Swinhoe’s softshell turtle tipped the scales at 247.5 kg (545 pounds). The turtles used to be widespread from the Yangtze river across South China and south to the Red River of Vietnam, but habitat loss, hunting, and collection for traditional medicine all took their toll. The turtles can live for longer than 100 years…possibly much, much longer, but nobody really knows what the upper limit might be. The turtles are capable of staying submerged deep under water for long stretches of time and only rarely come up for breath. It is also worth noting their extraordinary appearance: the head of a Swinshoe softshell turtle resembles the face of a pink/brown earless mutant pig with a an alien map tattooed on it.

As you might imagine, this enormous fairytale monster has been the focus of much lore. In Vietnamese mythology, this turtle holds approximately the same place as the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian mythology. Back in the 15th century, Vietnam’s hero-king, Le Loi, saved Vietnam by defeating the ravening armies of the Ming dynasty. According to legend, Le Loi accomplished this feat by means of a magical sword and, when the battle was over, the king gave the sword to a turtle god who lived in Hoan Kiem lake in the middle of Hanoi. To the Vietnamese these turtles are known not as Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, but rather as “Hoan Kiem” turtle— “returned sword” turtles. It makes you wonder if Arthur maybe somehow gave Excalibur to a snapping turtle. The sacred (and nationalistic!) nature of this story means that turtles in Lake Hoan Kiem were looked after dotingly. But the story is also a double edged sword (as it were), because when the last turtle in Lake Hoan Kiem died it was regarded as a ominous disaster–as if the ravens at the Tower of London had perished.

Like saolas, iridescent underworld snakes, and preposterously gigantic Mekong catfish (not to mention the vanished Stegodon, the ineffable baiji, and this extinct gibbon…sigh), Swinhoe’s softshell turtle seems to belong to an ancient otherworldly ecosystem which is swiftly departing forever from Earth. However at the beginning of this article, I said there was news about the species and there really is! The third turtle, which was alleged to exist in a Vietnamese lake, has been discovered to be quite real and she is a female turtle! Vietnamese conservationists are faced with a conundrum. Do they hope that there are other turtles out there in secret pools of the remote jungle and do nothing or are they going to have to try to capture the last known wild turtle and then negotiate with the hated Chinese government for rare turtle sperm? I do not feel qualified to opine on this question, but I do hope that somehow the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle escapes extinction. The world would be a poorer place without this ancient giant.

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