One question that came up frequently was about the Red River Giant Softshell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei). The Red River Giant Softshell Turtle may be the rarest and most threatened of all turtles, in addition to one of the largest – only four individuals are known remaining alive in the world.
See Dr. Peter Paul van Dijk’s answers on this topic below, and check out all of the community’s questions with expert answers on CI’s website.
Vanessa from the United Kingdom asked, “Are the four known remaining Red River Giant Softshell Turtles still capable of breeding? Can you tell me what is being done to help preserve them or is extinction certain?” and Job, via Facebook, asked, “Do you know of any updates on the Rafetus project in Suzhou? I’ve been coming back to the TSA website but they have not been updating on this subject (or I may have missed it).”
Of the four known animals, the male and female who were in captivity in China for decades at separate locations were brought together 3 years ago in the Suzhou zoo. They have bred and the female produced several clutches of eggs each year, but while there was some initial development, the embryos all died during incubation. It is not quite clear if this is a result of inadequate diet, reproductive senility, or some other problem; Dr. Gerald Kuchling, the world’s foremost expert on turtle reproductive, has worked with these animals throughout this time, and we still have hope that they will produce healthy hatchlings in the not too distant future. More details on these efforts can be found at http://www.turtlesurvival.org/component/taxonomy/term/summary/95/37
The other two animals live in separate lakes in northern Viet Nam, and we do not know with certainty if they are a male and female. Males do not tolerate each other; bringing two males together would likely result in one of them being killed by the other. Even if they are a confirmed pair, bringing them together involves great challenges. The animal in Hoan Kiem lake in downtown Hanoi is a symbol of Viet Nam’s independence; moving the animal out to the other lake is simply unacceptable. Moving the other animal into Hoan Kiem is a great logistic challenge, politically perhaps possible, but then runs into the problem that Hoan Kiem lake is severely polluted, does not have an adequate nesting site, and is not secure from harassment and injury of the turtles by humans. Moving animals from Viet Nam to China or vice versa – that becomes largely a political decision on top of the enormous challenges to transport such a large animal safely and without injury or severe stress.
There is hope that somewhere in northern Viet Nam or southern Yunnan, one or more animals still survive, undetected. Survey teams continue to look for more animals, and there remains hope that animals may survive, or be brought, together to perpetuate the species.
- Dr. Peter Paul van Dijk, Director of
Conservation International’s Tortoise
and Freshwater Turtle Conservation Program
What makes turtles come out of the river to walk out into the road? How many turtle species have been identified? What about farming the most endangered turtles?
And don’t forget to submit your question for the next installment of our Q&A series. Next time, Dr. Robin Moore, amphibian scientist, will answer your questions about frogs, toads, newts, salamanders, caecilians, and the Search for the Lost Frogs.