We’re ringing in the New Year with some good news: the last known Swinhoe’s softshell turtle – the most endangered turtle on the planet – is not in fact alone in this world, as another has been found in Vietnam. Even more excitingly, the former solo Swinhoe’s turtle is male, and the newly discovered one is female, offering hope for the near-extinct species.
The female was found in Dong Mo Lake in Hanoi’s Son Tay district in October 2020 and was captured for genetic testing, which confirmed it was indeed an incredibly rare Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, also known as the Yangtze giant softshell turtle or Hoan Kiem turtle.
“In a year full of bad news and sadness across the globe, the discovery of this female can offer all some hope that this species will be given another chance to survive,” said Vietnam’s Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) country director Hoang Bich Thuy in a statement.
Driven to near extinction by hunting for its meat and eggs, the last known Swinhoe’s softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) has been residing in China’s Suzhou Zoo. In December, the Ha Noi Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, in collaboration with the Asian Turtle Program (ATP) of Indo-Myanmar Conservation (IMC) and the WCS, revealed not just confirmation of the new female turtle, but that another possible two had been sighted, one also in Dong Mo Lake and another in nearby Xuan Khanh Lake, potentially taking the species up to four members.
“This is the best news of the year, and quite possibly the last decade, for global turtle conservation,” said Andrew Walde, chief operating officer of the Turtle Survival Alliance, who advised on the project. “As the most endangered turtle on Earth, a tremendous amount of energy and resources have been dedicated to the preservation of Swinhoe’s softshell turtle. Confirmation of this wild specimen as female is a cause for celebration for all those who have worked tirelessly to see this turtle species survive.”
Previously, there had been a major ongoing effort to breed the last known male and female turtles since they were first introduced in 2008, but after they failed to produce offspring naturally the female died in 2019 recovering from anesthesia after an artificial insemination procedure in China, a procedure carried out many times successfully in other animal species.
After this failure, eyes turned to the suspected turtles in the two lakes in Vietnam. Efforts were hampered by the pandemic in 2020, with Vietnam's lockdown preventing international teams from entering the country. However, in September the search went ahead, and after weeks of mapping out the lake, the female turtle was captured and taken to a holding pond where scientists carried out a health check, took a DNA test, and using ultrasound equipment, confirmed its sex.
The healthy female weighed in at 86 kilograms (189.5 pounds) and measured 1 meter (3.2 feet) in length. Now microchipped and swabbed for samples, researchers described her as "healthy, strong and keen to get back in the lake where she was released on the same day."
A comparison of head markings revealed that this turtle had actually been rescued and released into the lake in 2008. Another search is planned for spring 2021 to confirm the species and sex of the two other suspected Swinhoe's. If they are male and female, they could potentially provide another mating pair, or mate with either the male in China or the newly discovered female – exponentially increasing the chances of saving this rare species from extinction.