Species Spotlight: Asian Giant Softshell

Infographic: Jordan Gray

Asian Giant Softshell Turtle (Pelochelys cantorii)

Countries of Origin: Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore (extirpated), Thailand, Vietnam

IUCN Status: Critically Endangered

Habitat: Rivers, estuaries, coastal brackish and marine waters, and lakes

Size:  ≤ 100 cm (~39 in.) carapace length

The Asian Giant Softshell Turtle is one of the largest species of freshwater turtle in Asia, growing up to 100 cm (~39 in.) in carapace (top shell) length.

Fast Facts:

– Described to science in 1864 by John Edward Gray

– Named in honor of honor of Danish zoologist Theodore Edward Cantor (1809–1860)

– Massive range spans ~5,600 km (~3,480 mi) in lateral distance

  • Presumed historic range covered ~1,514,742 km2 (~584,845 mi2)
  • Occurs in isolated populations across its range

– Common names include: Asian Giant Softshell Turtle, Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle

  • Known colloquially by some as Frog-faced Softshell Turtle

– Males and females are generally of the same overall appearance

  • Females are larger than males and exhibit a shorter tail
Female Asian Giant Softshell Turtles lay up to 70 ping pong ball-like eggs on river and estuarine sandbars, banks, and seacoast beaches. Photo: Wildlife Conservation Society–Cambodia

– Females lay ≤ 70 eggs per clutch

  • Females search out soft sandy areas to dig their nests
  • In some localities females will often migrate from freshwater rivers to saltwater, seacoast beaches to lay their eggs

– Spends a considerable amount of time buried in substrate at the water bottom, exposing only its head

– Diet includes fish, mollusks, crustaceans, and plant matter

  • Flattened head and widely-spaced eyes on top of the head (similar to a frog or flounder) are evolutionary advantages for ambush hunting
  • Thrusts head and neck forward with mouth agape and swallowing water with explosive speed and force to catch live prey
From 2020-2022, a collaborative Turtle Survival Alliance/Wildlife Conservation Society/Fisheries Administration program has released nearly 3,000 hatchling Asian Giant Softshell Turtles into the Mekong River of Cambodia. Photo: Wildlife Conservation Society–Cambodia

Threats: Collection of adults and eggs for consumption and trafficking, incidental entanglement in fishing gear, and habitat destruction

– Historically collected for human consumption throughout its range

  • Adults and eggs continue to be illegally poached

– Industrial-scale sand mining operations destroy preferred habitat and nesting sandbars, banks, and beaches

– Large-scale shrimp farming operations destroy coastal mangrove forest habitat

– Turtles are incidentally captured in fishing gear and drown

– The species is largely absent from its historic range and in some countries has been extirpated or is considered extinct or near-extinct in the wild

  • Not considered abundant anywhere in its range
  • Cambodian population remains as most biologically significant
Field staff measure the biodata of an Asian Giant Softshell Turtle nest and its eggs before transporting them to a secure incubation enclosure. Photo: Steven Platt (Wildlife Conservation Society)

How you can help: Turtle Survival Alliance partners with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Royal Government of Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration to protect nesting beaches for the Asian Giant Softshell Turtle along the Mekong River in Cambodia, locate and transfer nests to protected hatcheries, and release hatchlings into the Mekong River. In addition, the program focuses on Community Fisheries development, livelihood development, poacher behavioral changes, biodiversity research, and law enforcement, as well as conducts educational programs and training sessions.

Buddhist monks, teachers, students, village chief and project staff release hatchling Asian Giant Softshell Turtles into the Mekong River. The monks provide Buddhist blessings for good luck to the hatchlings before releasing. Photo: Sitha Som (Wildlife Conservation Society–Cambodia)

In the last three years, the collaborative nest detection and protection program on the Mekong River located 177 nests, resulting in the release of 2944 hatchlings.

You can help us make a positive impact for the Asian Giant Softshell Turtle in its most biologically important population remaining by becoming a TSA Member or Donor today!

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