Last Female of Rare Reptile of Mythical Status Dies In Vietnam
The only known female of a critically-endangered freshwater turtle species has passed away. The mythical Yangtze giant softshell turtle has been at risk of extinction for decades, and the loss of this individual, believed to be just one of three that remain, signals just how dire the situation has become.
The 200-pound female turtle died on unknown causes in a Hanoi lake, according to state media. Also known as the Red River giant softshell turtle and the speckled softshell turtle, it’s among the most critically endangered freshwater turtle species in the world – and the largest, coming it at between 150-220 pounds.
“It’s a real blow,” Tim McCormack, director of the Asian Turtle Program, told TIME. “It was a large female that obviously has great reproductive capacity. She could have potentially laid a hundred eggs or more a year.”
Television personality and biologist Forrest Galant also chimed in on the creature’s loss, posting to Facebook, “I am truly heartbroken. The last known female of the entire species of Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) the largest freshwater turtle species in the world, has died.”
Yangtze giant softshell turtles are identifiable by their pig-like snout. Similar to other freshwater turtles, their diet consists of fish, snails and crabs, among other aquatic species, and they prefer to remain submerged deep beneath the water, rarely rising to the surface to breathe. When reproducing, they can lay between 20 and 80 eggs.
While Western science only learned of the species in 1873, they’ve long held a mythical status in Vietnam. According to legend, Kim Qui – translating to “Golden Turtle God” – aided in the construction and defense of Cổ Loa while it was under the reign of King An Dương Vương.
In the 15th century, Kim Qui is said to have fashioned a magical sword for a gentry named Lê Lợi, who used the weapon to lead a rebellion against the Chinese forces occupying Vietnam. Following the enemy’s defeat, he was named emperor, and the mythical turtle came to retrieve the sword from Lê Lợi, before disappearing beneath the depths of a Hanoi lake.
The female’s death means there’s only two members of the species left: one at the Suzhou Zoo in Suzhou, China and the other in Vietnam’s Xuân Khanh Lake. Native to Vietnam and southern and eastern China, the Yangtze giant softshell turtle first began to experience a population decline in the 1980s, due to human consumption of their meat and eggs, habitat loss, illegal poaching, alternative medicine and pollution.
While there have been efforts to breed the species in captivity, the endeavor hasn’t been all that successful.
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“I do think there’s more out there,” McCormack told TIME. “I do think there’s still hope for the species, but the loss of a large female is very sad.”