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"Extinct" Soft-Shell Turtle Found in Vietnam

Associated Press
April 17, 2008
 
A rare giant turtle previously thought to be extinct in the wild has been discovered in northern Vietnam, according to researchers from the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo who made the find.

The only other known Swinhoe's soft-shell turtles are three animals that live in captivity, said experts from the zoo's Asian turtle program.

The discovery represents hope for the species, said Doug Hendrie, the program's Vietnam-based coordinator.

Turtle expert Peter Pritchard, president of the Chelonian Research Institute, confirmed the find based on a photo Hendrie showed him.

"It looked like pretty solid evidence. The animal has a pretty distinctive head," Pritchard said.

He added that an amateur photographed a different Swinhoe's soft-shell turtle in southern China about six months ago that he believes was legitimate.

"It's on the very brink of extinction, so every one counts," Pritchard said.

Sword-Bearing Turtle

According to the Cleveland zoo, the Swinhoe's soft-shell turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in the world.

(See related photos of a bear-size catfish, a half-ton stingray, and others among the world's largest freshwater fishes.)

The reptiles can weigh up to 300 pounds (136 kilograms) and measure up to three feet (a meter) long. Some have been known to live for more than a hundred years.

Of the other three turtles in captivity, two are in Chinese zoos and one is cared for in the Hoan Kiem—or "Returned Sword"—Lake in downtown Hanoi.

Local legend states that a giant golden turtle appeared in the lake and bestowed upon the Vietnamese people a magic sword and victory over Chinese invaders in the 16th century.

Some residents of a village west of Hanoi claimed to have been blessed after catching a glimpse of the species' concave shell as it crested above the surface of their lake.

"This is one of those mythical species that people always talked about, but no one ever saw," said Geoff Hall, zoo general curator.

But the species has suffered due to increased killings for food or to make traditional medicine from the turtles' bones.

Development and pollution also led to loss of nesting habitats along rivers, zoo officials said.

The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has put more than $275,000 (U.S.) into Asian turtle conservation efforts since 2000 and has supported Hendrie since 2003, officials said.

Hendrie and colleagues from Education for Nature-Vietnam had searched lakes and wetlands along the Red River for three years before hearing about the creature living outside Hanoi.

The newfound turtle remains in the lake, and researchers have notified the Vietnamese government of its existence, Hendrie said.

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