Close Call for the World's Last Rafetus swinhoei in the Wild

Torrential monsoon rains caused rivers to spill over their banks and brought water in lakes and reservoirs to capacity throughout northern Vietnam.  It was mid-November 2008 and Team Rafetus Vietnam had just completed a series of awareness activities in local communities surrounding Dong Mo Lake (located about 60 km west of Hanoi) where the world‚Äôs last known Rafetus swinhoei remains in the wild. 

The 70kg turtle is one of four living examples of the species known in the world, another of which is in a manmade lake in the center of Hanoi. The two other surviving turtles are currently the focus of a critical conservation breeding initiative at Suzhou Zoo in China (see related article). 

The Dong Mo Rafetus, while special in its status as the only surviving individual of its species in the wild, is likely alone in the lake.  Current conservation efforts in Vietnam focus in part on hopes of finding other living Rafetus in the wild.  However, so far comprehensive surveys have produced little more than skulls, bones and photographs of gigantic turtles that were caught a decade or more ago. 

Team Rafetus Vietnam was established in September of 2007 when local reports suggested the presence of a large softshell turtle in Dong Mo Lake, west of Hanoi.  Following a series of interviews with local fishermen confirming the presence of a large turtle, a full-time team was put on the ground, conducting patrols, establishing observation posts, and monitoring fishing and other activities in the lake until the turtle was spotted and photographed in November 2007, confirming the presence of Rafetus swinhoei in the lake.  Following confirmation of the discovery, the Rafetus team initiated additional conservation measures focused on raising awareness amongst local residents in communities about the importance of the turtle, and briefing local and national government counterparts to enhance the turtle‚Äôs protection.  At the same time, monitoring was intensified at the lake, and efforts were stepped up to gain support from local fishermen and lake owners.

When the heavy rains came in November 2008, the flooding around Dong Mo Lake was not of major concern until reports started filtering in from the local team that there had been a catastrophic collapse of the dam at the far side of the lake.  Worse yet were suggestions that the softshell had escaped through the breach in the dam and was spotted in the main channel of the flooded stream below the lake.  The four kilometer stretch of river meandered through the district before linking up with a tributary of the Red River.  Although there were sketchy reports by local fishermen of sightings along the stream, the possibility that the Rafetus had made it to the Red River was of great concern.  

District fisheries and wildlife protection authorities were alerted in every district up and down the Red River to the ocean, urging them to watch for a large softshell that might turn up in nets or in the hands of fishermen.  Meanwhile, Team Rafetus put in place temporary nets blocking the stream about 2-3 km below Dong Mo Lake at its narrowest point, hoping to prevent the turtle from passing if it had not already made it to the Red River.  Team Rafetus members camped along the 2-3 km containment area. Days passed with no further sightings by our teams, and concerns grew that our response had been too slow and too late.  Then on the morning of November 26, Team Rafetus coordinator, Hoang Van Ha was notified that a local fisherman had captured a giant softshell turtle in the stream below Dong Mo Lake earlier in the morning.   The next six hours proved to be some of the most difficult of my 12 years working in Vietnam, and provide  a testament to the obstacles that conservationists face in trying to protect endangered wildlife in Vietnam.  When our team arrived at the fisherman‚Äôs house, there were already a fair number of local authorities present and more than 100 spectators as people came and went trying to get a glimpse of the huge turtle.  The Rafetus lay wrapped in nets below a shaded canopy, protected from the swell of people pressing in for a look by wooden barriers. 

Our objective clearly was to get the fisherman to release the turtle back into Dong Mo Lake where it came from.  However, good intentions were not what the fisherman nor his family had in mind.  Up all night and bearing deep scratches from the capture, the fisherman sought to negotiate a substantial reward for himself from authorities, or offered alternatively, to sell the turtle to the highest bidder. 

From a western perspective, the case should have been cut and dry.  The fisherman had violated Vietnamese law by actively hunting and capturing the turtle, which is considered a wild animal of illegal origin under the law. The authorities should have confiscated the turtle immediately if the fisherman refused to voluntarily turn it over. A reward might even be in order to congratulate the fisherman for assisting in the capture and return of the turtle to the lake.  However, as is often the case when dealing with law breakers in Vietnam, enforcement of the law is a function of extended negotiations.  And so began a day of exhausting discussions between local wildlife protection authorities, police, and community leaders, with local leaders arguing the position of the fisherman who insisted that a settlement of $2,000 or more was warranted for his ‚Äúcooperation.‚Äù 

Our role was limited to that of spectators as endless streams of higher-ranking local officials turned up, none willing to simply confiscate the turtle and release it back into the lake as the law would prescribe.  The Rafetus was thankfully moved to a shed, beyond the reach of spectators, that was locked and guarded by police. Ms. Nguyen Thi Van Anh, head of ENV‚Äôs Wildlife Crime Unit was the star of the day, and her role in the day‚Äôs events would ultimately be the deciding factor in the day‚Äôs successful outcome.  Van Anh had headed up most of the team‚Äôs efforts during the previous months to highlight the importance of the Dong Mo turtle within relevant ministries and amongst agency heads at the national level.  Her work for ENV also put her in regular contact with the right people, including the chairman (governor) of Hanoi, for which Dong Mo Lake and surrounding communities fell under his jurisdiction.  Van Anh met with district and provincial police and leaders, updating Hanoi officials and asking for intervention from Hanoi as the afternoon heat began to flare tempers.  Police pushed crowds out of the courtyard temporarily, and more police were called in to assist in dealing with what appeared to be an increasingly unstable situation as angry relatives of the fisherman became more aggressive in their demand for compensation, at one time, threatening to kill the turtle if their demands were not met.  The main obstacle appeared to be the unwillingness of anyone present at the site to make a decision on the confiscation, though clearly the authorities supported return of the turtle to the lake. 

Van Anh offered to compensate the fisherman for torn nets and offer a small reward for the assistance that the fisherman provided in returning the turtle to the lake, but negotiations appeared to be stalled.  However, sometime during the late afternoon, it is said that the governor in Hanoi was said to have told police to put an end to the discussions and tell the fisherman either to take the deal for a replacement net and small reward or the turtle would be confiscated and the fisherman would be punished in accordance with the law.  At this point, the fisherman reluctantly agreed to turn over the turtle. 

Anxious to follow through with the decision as quickly as possible, Team Rafetus and local rangers wrapped the 70 kg turtle in a plastic tarp and pushed through an unruly crowd of spectators to a truck that had been waiting outside the fisherman‚Äôs house since early morning.  Assisted by police with electric wands attempting to keep the crowd back, the team managed to get the turtle onboard, and sped off through the village for the lake.  The five kilometer trip to the lake seemed to take eternity, a trail of motorcycles in pursuit.  Reaching the lake, the crowds were more manageable, and thankfully, a number of forest rangers arrived in time to assist with the unloading and movement of the turtle down to the water‚Äôs edge.  Without ceremony or further delay, the world‚Äôs last remaining Rafetus swinhoei in the wild, was wild once again, slipping into the lake, and ending what had been an incredible day. 

Since the turtle‚Äôs return, Team Rafetus has stepped up efforts to build local support for the turtle‚Äôs protection as ENV continues to raise awareness in local communities around the lake.  Most of us involved in the incident agree that had it not been for the presence of the local team living and working at the lake, along with efforts to build support for protection of the turtle well in advance of this incident, our Dong Mo Rafetus would not have survived the day. 

Unfortunately, the future of our Rafetus swinhoei is not clear.  While the November rescue has brought positive attention and support for the protection of the turtle in Dong Mo Lake, he is alone and can do little to contribute to the future of his kind.  Team Rafetus continues to survey both historic habitat and new sites where other turtles may persist in the wild, recently surveying rivers further south without success. 

The Rafetus swinhoei Conservation Project is administered by the Asian Turtle Program of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and Education for Nature ‚Äì Vietnam (ENV), the country‚Äôs first local organization focused with protection of nature and wildlife in Vietnam.  The project was started in 2000 and has involved intermittent surveys for Rafetus swinhoei throughout northern Vietnam until the recent discovery in November 2007 of the single individual living in Dong Mo Lake.  At this time, the ATP has undertaken a full-time effort to ensure that the Dong Mo Rafetus is protected in its native habitat.  The Rafetus Conservation Project has received support by the Turtle Survival Alliance, Turtle Conservation Fund, The Wade Foundation, and the Melbourne Zoo. 

Click to link to Rafetus news story on VTV1

- Douglas Hendrie
Asian Turtle Program, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo