Last Female of Rare Reptile of Mythical Status Dies In Vietnam

Clare Fitzgerald
Photo Credit: STR / AFP / Getty Images
Photo Credit: STR / AFP / Getty Images

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.

Yangtze giant softshell turtle sitting on a blue tarp
Photo Credit: Visual China Group / Getty Images

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.”

Group of experts standing over a Yangtze giant softshell turtle
Photo Credit: Visual China Group / Getty Images

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.

Yangtze giant softshell turtle standing on a brown towel
Photo Credit: Phuongcacanh / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

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.

Two men measuring the shell of a Yangtze giant softshell turtle
Photo Credit: Visual China Group / Getty Images

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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.”


Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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