There are just three Yangtze giant softshell turtles left in the world.
Yet if a female can be found, the largest freshwater turtle on the planet just might not go extinct.
The turtle’s tale is already a sad one, with modernization and over-hunting essentially destroying the species.
Dams in Vietnam and China limited the animals’ ability to migrate and breed.
Rice paddies and other uses that changed the land destroyed the turtles’ habitat.
Hunters have finished off the rest.
The one confirmed to be a male, living in a Chinese zoo, never could breed with a female turtle also in the zoo.
That female turtle has since died.
Two wild turtles inhabit Vietnamese lakes, but their genders are unknown.
The reptiles, Rafetus swinhoei, are also known as Hoan Kiem or Sword Lake turtles.
Hoan Kiem is a lake associated with Kim Qui, a turtle god of which the giant softshells are considered avatars in traditional Vietnamese religion.
Two lakes, two turtles left
On Dong Mo Lake in Vietnam, a single turtle is now protected by the same fishermen who once upon a time killed and ate its relatives.
Local villagers are involved in a turtle education and protection program supported by several environmental groups.
Twelve miles away, in Xuan Khanh lake, the other wild turtle lives.
Its existence was anecdotal until environmental DNA methods found traces of the turtle in the lake’s water.
Tim McCormack, a conservationist based in Hanoi, has spearheaded efforts to save the turtle in coordination with a range of national and international groups, and with the Vietnamese government.
He stresses that the next step is to determine if either of the two wild turtles is female.
If so, either captive or wild breeding will be the solution — a single female can lay 60 or more eggs in a year.
Producing numerous hatchlings would at least remove the species from the brink of extinction.
Funding the future
The main barrier to this happening is money, says McCormack.
“It’s amazing — the species is so rare but if you look at funding and resources available it’s quite limited,” he told Mongabay. “If you look at tiger conservation or elephant, you’re talking about millions of dollars being put into it. For these species, there’s very little in comparison.”
But what if both wild Yangtze softshells are male?
McCormack sounds a hopeful note.
He thinks the elusive giants may still be found in other Vietnamese lakes as well in Laos.
And so the search continues.