AFP via Yahoo! News
Thu Apr 17, 12:36 PM ET
HANOI (AFP) - US researchers have found a rare giant turtle in northern Vietnam after a three-year hunt -- a find sure to thrill both scientists and locals, who consider the animal a mythical creature.
The Swinhoe's soft-shell turtle was believed to be extinct in the wild. Only three of the turtles are known to exist in captivity -- two are at zoos in China, and one is in Hoan Kiem Lake in downtown Hanoi.
But US and Vietnamese researchers recently focused their search for the world's largest freshwater turtle to a lake west of the capital, after local residents claimed to have spotted the animal there.
The turtle -- which can live to be more than 100 years old -- was photographed on the lake's surface, announced the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, which sponsored the search along with the Cleveland Zoological Society.
"This is an incredibly important discovery because the Swinhoe's turtle is one of the most critically endangered species of turtle in the world," said Doug Hendrie, Vietnam-based coordinator of the zoo's Asian Turtle Programme.
"This species has legendary status among the people of Vietnam, so this is perhaps an opportunity for the legend to live on," he said in a statement dated Wednesday.
A Vietnamese legend says that a 15th century farmer-turned-rebel leader, Le Loi, used a magical sword to drive out Chinese invaders and found the dynasty named after him.
When Le Loi, by now the emperor, went boating on Hoan Kiem Lake one day, a turtle appeared, took his sacred sword and dived to the lake bottom, keeping the weapon safe for the next time Vietnam may have to defend its freedom.
The turtle -- which can weigh up to 300 pounds (135 kilogrammes) and measure up to 3.5 feet (one metre) -- has come under threat mostly from hunters, who kill it for food or to make traditional medicine from their bones.
Pollution and loss of nesting habitats along major rivers have contributed to the animal's demise, the Cleveland zoo said.
Efforts are underway to bring the male and female turtles from the China zoos together in a bid to reproduce, the zoo added.
"This is one of those mythical species that people always talked about but no one ever saw, so it's hugely significant that we found this lone turtle in the wild," said Geoff Hall, the zoo's general curator.
"It gives us some hope for a species that truly is on the verge of extinction."
*I'm documenting this special story for Sadie's baby book. I hope to find a book about the legend while in Vietnam*