There's good news for the world’s most endangered turtle, because the capture of a female in Vietnam means that at least one male and one female Swinhoe’s softshell turtle are now known to exist.

The female (Rafetus swinhoei) was captured on 22 October in Dong Mo Lake in Hanoi, and the male lives at Suzhou Zoo in China. Authorities believe there is at least one more turtle - also known as the Yangtze giant softshell turtle and Hoan Kiem turtle - in the lake and another in nearby Xuan Khanh Lake. They hope to capture and determine the sex of the other turtles this coming spring, and their aim is that one male and female are given a chance to breed to ensure the species can return from the brink of extinction.

A Swinhoe turtle in a blue water basin.png
The 86kg female was captured in Hanoi © WCS Vietnam

When the 86kg female was captured, a health check was done, a microchip was inserted, swabs and blood samples were taken and a physical check was recorded. She was found to be healthy and strong and was released back into the lake on the same day. With sightings of a second turtle with an estimated weight of 130kg in the lake, work started in November 2020 with the capture team. It is hoped the turtle can be captured this spring when the water level is at its lowest, and if it's a male, that he and the female will mate and produce offspring in either a semi-wild area or captivity.

“Once we know the sex of the animals in Vietnam, we can make a clear plan on the next steps," says Timothy McCormack, program director of the Asian Turtle Program of Indo-Myanmar Conservation, which is collaborating on this project with the Hanoi Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and and the Wildlife Conservation Society. "Hopefully we have a male and a female, in which case breeding and recovery of the species becomes a real possibility. At the same time, our surveys in other areas of Vietnam suggest other animals might still survive in the wild. We need to be looking at bringing these together as part of the broader conservation plan for the species.”

Over-hunting and habitat destruction have contributed to the demise of the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, and as it's the most endangered turtle on Earth, energy and resources have been dedicated to its preservation. Prior to this discovery, there had been a major effort to breed the two known remaining members of the species, which had failed to produce offspring naturally. Sadly, the female died in April 2019 during recovery from anaesthesia after an artificial insemination procedure in China.

Further information is available on the Asian Turtle Program here.

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