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1 January 2011

The Great Turtle surfaced ! 01-01-2011

Hi all,

Sorry, I'm not going to speak about birds (very few to see in the capital actually), but...turtle !
In the days just before the New Year, the famous Hoan Kiem Lake turtle, legendary in Hanoi, surfaced signalling happiness and a lucky New Year. I was lucky enough to be there with my camera, and the show was as much in the water than on the banks ! Hundreds of people flocked to Dinh Tien Street to see the beast (1m90 long, 200 kg !). Whether or not the turtle felt happy about such chaotic scenes remains an open question !

This species with pig-like snout is Rafetus swinhoei - Swinhoe’s soft-shell turtle. It is listed as critically endangered in the IUCN Red List, and is one of the rarest turtles and even rarest animals in the world.
Indeed, there are only seven living specimens of the species known to exist. Five are in China, all in captivity (one in the Beijing Zoo, one in the Shanghai Zoo, one in the Suzhou Zoo, and two in the Western Gardens of a temple in Suzhou). The sixth living Rafetus swinhoei is in Hoan Kiem Lake, in the center of Hanoi. Not a natural habitat of course, but not a zoo too ; a sort of giant aquarium of 11 hectares with banks entirely cemented over, in the middle of a busy, noisy megalopolis with heavy traffic and air pollution. In 2007, after three years of searching, scientists conducting surveys west of Hanoi discovered in Đồng Mô Lake (see last post), at the foot of the Mount Ba Vi, the seventh one which is the world's only living specimen of Swinhoe’s soft-shell turtle in the wild.
Before this incredibly discovery, the species was believed to be extinct in the wild !

Other specimens may still surviving in Yen Bai and Thanh Hoa provinces. Rafetus swinhoei is on the very brink of extinction, so every one counts.
(I took the photo above in mid-February 2010, but all the other one the 30-12-2010. You can notice that 10 months ago, its face was incrusted with algae, but was not recently)

For centuries, Hanoians have been fascinated by the mysterious turtle that lives underneath the tranquil waters of Hoan Kiem Lake, passing down stories about the beloved creature from generation to generation. They have respect for the turtle, and also believe in its supernatural and spiritual power. This animal is holy and associated with a legend (read here).

Habitat of Rafetus swinhoei: Large river systems and associated wetlands and lakes

Range: Southern China and northern Vietnam

Diet: According to fishermen surveyed, the stomach contents of Rafetus killed included fish, crabs, snails, water hyacinth, frogs, and green rice leaves (McCormack and Hendrie, 2004).

Actually, Vietnamese scientists are urging Hanoi authorities to wipe out the invasive Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta) which is believed to be a threat to Hoan Kiem Lake's legendary chelonian. Many Hanoians release them into Hoan Kiem for good luck during occasions that include the Tet New Year, creating the problem. Professor Ha Dinh Duc, an expert on the giant soft-shell Rafetus swinhoei, said : "Hanoi's authorities need to make a plan to kill these invaders because if there are no timely and proper measures, red-eared turtles would eat all foods of our native turtle...They even eat all plants in the lake, and the lake would not be green anymore."

When you will take a stroll along the lake, keep your eyes open and your senses alert for the slight chance to spot a moving beak in the water. Catching a glimpse of the Great Turtle is a precious moment that all Hanoians dream of having.

Cheers to all and Happy Birding for 2011 !

Delonglee Sebastien

Video : choose "Settings" 480p for optimum quality


  1. Great photos Sebastien! Unfortunately, I think all but two of those Chinese individuals are now dead, so you've seen 25% of the world population of this species...

  2. Hi JP

    Maybe I have seen the only known specimen of a new species ! The BIG specialist of the Hoan Kiem's turtle, the Professor Hà Đình Đức (nicknamed "Mister Turtle" here), is convinced of this and gave it the name of Rafetus leloii in reference of the king Lê Lợi of the legend !
    The comparaison of the Hoan Kiem's turtle with images (?!) of specimens of Rafetus swinhoei in China shows, according to him, clear differences in coloration and head shape, supporting Professor Đức's thesis that this could be a new species.
    A strange story where taxonomy and national pride seems very imbricated. But it's just my opinion...


  3. Unfortunately Sebastien, this theory of a separate species has been completely and solidly dismissed in the published literature...

  4. The published literature that dismissed leloii as a species did not have DNA research but the Vietnamese scientists who did a study in 2010 claim they did. However, although they concluded the two were not the same species, they failed to give the samples to Genbank.

    Many of the Vietnamese scientists are likely biased, fueled by anti-Chinese sentiment.

    The Rafetus turtle in Dong Mo, Vietnam does look different from this one, but that may only be linked to age - that turtle is a young male this one is an old female.

    Only with unbiased studies can we prove anything.

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