Hoan Kiem turtle
|Hoan Kiem turtle|
|Hoàn Kiếm turtle|
The Hoàn Kiếm turtle (Rafetus leloii) is a controversial taxon of turtle from Southeast Asia, with one known living specimen in Hoàn Kiếm Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam. This individual is affectionately known as Cụ Rùa, meaning “great grandfather turtle” in Vietnamese. Although some Vietnamese scientists insist that the leloii is a distinct species from the Yangtze giant softshell turtle Rafetus swinhoei, most authorities classify it as synonymous with the latter species. If the two “forms” are to be considered identical, there are four living specimens left in the world.
Through work by Farkas et al., most authorities classify leloii as a junior synonym of the Yangtze giant softshell turtle. However, some Vietnamese biologists, such as Hà Đình Đức, who first described leloii, and Le Tran Binh insist that the two turtles are not the same species. Le points out genetic differences as well as differences in morphology. However, Farkas et al. repeated their 2003 conclusion in 2011, stating that differences between specimens may be due to age and that the genetic sequences used were never sent to GenBank. They also criticized the fact that Le et al. violated ICZN Code by renaming the species from leloii to vietnamensis on the grounds of “appropriateness”. Another genetic test was done in 2011 when the turtle was rescued and cleaned, which allegedly showed it to be female and distinct from the R. swinhoei of China and Đồng Mô, Vietnam. However, the results were not formally announced, and some are skeptical of these results, given the difficulty of sexing turtles and the lack of the claimed genetic proof.
Đức has also hypothesized that Emperor Thái Tổ of the Lê Dynasty brought the turtles from Thanh Hóa Province and released them in Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Recently, Đức and some researchers found skeletons of giant turtles in Yên Bái, Phú Thọ and Hòa Bình provinces.
Stories of the Hoàn Kiếm turtle began in the fifteenth century with Lê Lợi, who became an emperor of Vietnam and founder of the Lê Dynasty. According to legend, Lê Lợi had a magic sword given to him by Kim Qui, the Golden Turtle God. One day, not long after the Chinese had accepted Vietnam’s independence, Lê Lợi was out boating on a lake in Hanoi. Suddenly a large turtle surfaced, took the sword from Lê Lợi, and dove back into the depths. Efforts were made to find both the sword and the turtle, but without success. Lê Lợi then acknowledged the sword had gone back to the Golden Turtle God and renamed the lake Hoàn Kiếm Lake (or Hồ Gươm), “The Lake of the Returned Sword”.
Near the northern shore of Hoàn Kiếm Lake lies Jade Island, on which the Temple of the Jade Mountain is located. On June 2, 1967, a Hoàn Kiếm turtle died from injuries caused by an abusive fisherman that was ordered to net the turtle and carry it, but instead hit the turtle with a crowbar. The turtle’s body was preserved and placed on display in the temple. That particular specimen weighed 200 kg (440 lbs) and measured 1.9 metres long (6 ft 3 in). Until that time, no one was sure if the species still lived.
On March 24, 1998, an amateur cameraman caught the creature on video, conclusively proving the elusive creatures still survived in the lake. Prior to its recent rediscovery, the turtles were thought to be only a legend and were classified as cryptozoological.
In 2000, professor Hà Đình Đức gave the Hoàn Kiếm turtle the scientific name Rafetus leloii.
Presently, if R. leloii is considered to be identical to R. swinhoei, there are four living individuals. Three turtles are in captivity, two of them in Chinese zoos and another in Đồng Mô (which appears to be a R. swinhoei), while the fourth being the controversial specimen in Hoàn Kiếm Lake.
By the Spring of 2011, concerned with the Hoàn Kiếm specimen’s more frequent than usual surfacing, and apparent lesions on its body, the city authorities started attempts to capture the giant reptile of Hoàn Kiếm Lake, and take it for medical treatment. On February 9, a local turtle farm operator, KAT Group, was chosen to prepare a suitable net to capture the sacred animal. The first attempt, on March 8, 2011, failed, as the turtle made a hole in the net with which the workers tried to capture it, and escaped. An expert commented, “It’s hard to catch a large, very large soft-shell turtle.” On March 31, in an unusual act, the turtle went to the shore to bask in the sun. Finally, on April 3, 2011, the giant turtle was netted in an operation that involved members of the Vietnamese military. The captured creature was put into an enclosure constructed on an island in the middle of the lake, for study and treatment. According to the scientists involved, the turtle was determined to be female, and genetic research suggested it was distinct from the R. swinhoei turtles in China, and Đồng Mô in Vietnam. 
Some witnesses believe there are at least two or three turtles living in Hoàn Kiếm Lake and that the “smaller” one appears more regularly. Đức is critical of these suggestions.
Despite eyewitness sightings of two or more turtles, Professor Đức believes that there is only one specimen left in Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Peter Pritchard, a renowned turtle biologist, believes that there are no more than five specimens left.
The lake itself is both small and shallow, measuring 200 metres wide, 600 metres long, and only two meters deep. It is also badly polluted, although the turtles could conceivably live underwater indefinitely, coming to the surface only for an occasional gulp of air or a bit of sun. According to Pritchard, the turtles are threatened by municipal “improvements” around the lake. The banks have been almost entirely cemented over, leaving only a few yards of rocky beach where a turtle might find a place to bury her clutches of 100 or more eggs.
Plans are underway to clean the lake of pollution, and the construction of an artificial beach has been proposed to facilitate breeding. Dredging the lake, to clean up its bottom, was carried out in February and March 2011.
Professor Đức is currently organizing people to protect this animal and is quoted as saying, “We hope that we will find a partner for the turtle in Ho Guom, so that our legendary animal could avoid extinction.” Believing the turtle to be different from R. swinhoei, he is against the idea of crossbreeding turtles of the two kinds. Some view the idea that the species are distinct as being politically and culturally motivated by anti-Chinese sentiment.
- Farkas, B and Webb, R.G. 2003. Rafetus leloii Hà Dinh Dúc, 2000—an invalid species of softshell turtle from Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam (Reptilia, Testudines, Trionychidae). Zool. Abhandl. (Dresden), 53: 107-112.
- Asian Turtle Trade Working Group 2000. Rafetus swinhoei. In: IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 23 April 2011.
- Le, Tran Binh. "COMPARATIVE MORPHOLOGICAL AND DNA ANALYSIS OF SPECIMENS OF GIANT FRESHWATER SOFT-SHELLED TURTLE IN VIETNAM RELATED TO HOAN KIEM TURTLE". Retrieved 17 February 2012.
- Farkas, Balázs; Minh Duc Le; Truong Quang Nguyen (2011). "Rafetus vietnamensis Le, Le, Tran, Phan, Phan, Tran, Pham, Nguyen, Nong, Phan, Dinh, Truong and Ha, 2010 – another invalid name for an invalid species of softshell turtle (Reptilia: Testudines: Trionychidae)". Russian Journal of Herpetology. Retrieved 17 February 2012.
- An Dien; Minh Hung. "Sacred turtle returned to Hanoi lake". Thanh Nien News. Retrieved 8 March 2012.
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- "Giant turtle sightings set Vietnam capital abuzz". CNN (HANOI, Vietnam). AP. Apr 13, 1998. Archived from the original on 2008-10-21.
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- Sphere - turtle[dead link]
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