World’s Rarest Turtle Discovered in Vietnam!

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A photograph taken of the Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle in Xuan Khanh Lake in May 2017. This photo however did not constitute clear evidence until a DNA sample could verify the species. Photo by: Nguyen Van Trong – ATP/IMC

The Asian Turtle Program of Indo-Myanmar Conservation, Washington State University, and Turtle Survival Alliance are very excited to announce the confirmation of a Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) living in a lake outside of Hanoi, Vietnam! The now-confirmed specimen increases the global population of the world’s rarest turtle, and unarguably one of the Earth’s rarest animals, to four.

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Nguyen Van Trong of the ATP/IMC processes water samples by the lake to be analyzed at Washington State University using eDNA technology. Photo by: Nguyen Tai Thang – ATP/IMC

The turtle was first rumored to live in the Xuan Khanh Lake, west of Hanoi, in 2012. After several years of relentless search by our partners at the Asian Turtle Program, a photograph was captured by Nguyen Van Trong of a large softshell turtle residing in the lake in May 2017. The photograph however was not enough to confirm the specimen as Rafetus swinhoei. In 2017, the Turtle Survival Alliance partnered with the Asian Turtle Program and Washington State University to intensify the effort to confirm the existence of R. swinhoei in Xuan Khanh Lake through the use of environmental DNA (eDNA). The efforts paid off when Dr. Caren Goldberg of the Washington State University confirmed a clear positive result for R. swinhoei DNA, based upon her analysis of eDNA samples from Xuan Khanh Lake. Although the effort to capture this specimen and bring it together with the other last remaining animals will be immense, the confirmation of its existence significantly increases the chance of survival for the species. Of the three previously known specimens, only one other R. swinhoei is known to live in the wild, in Dong Mo Lake, Vietnam, while the other two specimens, a pair, reside at the Suzhou Zoo, Suzhou China.

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Nguyen Tai Thang surveys for Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtles around Xuan Khanh Lake, Vietnam. Photo by: Nguyen Van Trong – ATP

The success of this work has only been possible through the support of an international team and national authorities in Vietnam. The Biodiversity Conservation Agency (BCA) of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment (MoNRE) and the Fisheries Department and Forest Protection Department (FPD) of Vietnam have both supported surveys and conservation efforts for R. swinhoei. The analysis of the eDNA was made possible by support from several institutions including the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, Turtle Conservation Fund, International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, and British Chelonia Group, as well as numerous private donors.

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This Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle was found in Dong Mo Lake, Vietnam in 2008, and is the only other known wild specimen. Photo by: Timothy McCormack- ATP

As the world’s rarest chelonian species, the survival of the Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle will only be possible through collaborating organizations and the people who define them making the firm commitment to “zero turtle extinctions.” Their survival also needs YOU. We ask that you please DONATE TODAY to aid in the efforts to preserve the world’s rarest turtle, Rafetus swinhoei.

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