Earth’s Largest Freshwater Turtle Species On The Brink Of Extinction After The Last Known Female Turns Up Dead

Published May 5, 2023

The female Yangtze giant softshell turtle could have "laid a hundred eggs or more a year," experts said. Now, the known population of this turtle species is only two males.

Giant Yangtze Turtle Female

Tim McCormack/Asian Turtle ProgramA female Yangtze giant softshell turtle in Hanoi, Vietnam in 2008.

The Yangtze giant softshell turtle, Rafetus swinhoei, was first described in 1873 and has long been considered the world’s most endangered turtle species. As of April 24, 2023, its extinction is seemingly all but guaranteed.

Per TIME, local residents and conservationists near the Đồng Mô Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam found the lifeless body of a Yangtze giant softshell turtle washed ashore, and fear quickly spread about the species’ future.

She was likely the last female of the species. The only other known living members of the species are males — one in China’s Suzhou Zoo, and the other in Hanoi’s Xuân Khanh Lake.

This was confirmed by Tim McCormack, director of the Asian Turtle Program for Indo-Myanmar Conservation, who told TIME, “It is the same individual that we’ve been monitoring in recent years. It’s a real blow.

“It was a large female that obviously has great reproductive capacity,” McCormack added. “She could have potentially laid a hundred eggs or more a year.”

The species was driven to extinction due to rising levels of pollution and decades of hunting for the turtles’ meat and eggs.

The loss is especially disheartening as the species has special cultural significance in Vietnam. According to the Asian Turtle Program, the Yangtze giant softshell turtle is known in Vietnam as the Hoàn Kiếm Turtle, as the species was once known to inhabit central Hanoi’s Hoàn Kiếm Lake, which derived its name from a 15th-century legend.

As the legend goes, according to the blog The Not So Innocents Abroad, the golden turtle god Kim Qui once gifted the Vietnamese emperor Lê Lợi a magical sword known as Thuận Thiên, “According to Heaven’s Will,” which granted him the power to grow to giant size and have the strength of 1,000 men. His newfound power allowed Lê Lợi to fight back against the invading Chinese army and earn Vietnam its freedom.

Shortly after his victory, Kim Qui once again appeared to Lê Lợi and asked him to return Thuận Thiên before its power could corrupt him. Abiding by the request, Lê Lợi cast the sword into the lake. Kim Qui snatched Thuận Thiên in its mouth and returned to rest at the bottom of the lake.

Hoan Kiem Turtle Legend

Wikimedia CommonsA mural depicting the golden turtle god, Kim Qui, with the legendary sword strapped to its back.

Lê Lợi then renamed the lake “Hoàn Kiếm,” the Lake of the Restored Sword.

“The fact that Rafetus swinhoei‘s natural habitat overlaps with the story’s location elevates the species’ cultural significance in the eyes of Vietnamese,” said Khoi Pham, the editor of arts and culture magazine Saigoneer, according to TIME. “It’s like we have a tangible connection to history right in our backyard, and seeing the turtle alive and kicking makes the legends seem more real and our past victories more validated.”

Unfortunately, there has not been a Rafetus swinhoei living in Hoàn Kiếm Lake since January 2016, when a giant Yangtze softshell turtle known as Cụ Rùa died.

“Turtles have long been revered in Vietnamese culture as a symbol of longevity, wisdom, and stability. The creatures appear as decorative motifs in temples and monuments, and as mythological figures in many folk legends,” Khoi added. “It’s a shame that, for a country that respects turtle deities so much, we have been doing such a poor job of protecting their real-life counterparts.”

Previously, a Yangtze giant softshell turtle female had been kept alongside a male at the Suzhou Zoo in China, where staff members spent years trying to get the pair to reproduce. Unfortunately, their efforts were in vain, and the female died in 2018.

It seemed, for a time, that all hope of saving this endangered species was lost. But in January 2021, another female was found in Hanoi’s Đồng Mô Lake, and once again conservationists felt hopeful that the species could be saved from extinction.

“The whole time, in 20 years I’ve been working with the species, we’ve never seen any eggs,” McCormack said. “There has been an artificial nesting beach built in Đồng Mô Lake for almost 10 years now, which has had no nesting. So one of the questions has been whether this was a lone animal or whether there are other animals in Đồng Mô.”

If there are indeed other Hoàn Kiếm Turtles living in Đồng Mô Lake, then conservationists are determined to find them, though to date they have only been able to catch and identify the one female.

“I do think there’s more out there,” McCormack said. “I do think there’s still hope for the species, but the loss of a large female is very sad.”

After learning about the tragic loss of this giant Yangtze softshell turtle, find out why the world’s rarest ape is on the verge of extinction. Then, learn about the kakapo, New Zealand’s flightless, endangered parrot.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
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Harvey, Austin. "Earth’s Largest Freshwater Turtle Species On The Brink Of Extinction After The Last Known Female Turns Up Dead.", May 5, 2023, Accessed May 27, 2024.