Caixin
Jan 23, 2021 12:00 PM
WEEKEND LONG READ

Weekend Read: ‘Loneliest Species’ Gets Second Chance at Survival

The recent tale of the critically endangered Yangtze giant softshell turtle, found both in China’s Yangtze River Delta and in northern Vietnam, has taken conservationists for a ride over the rapids the past 15 years, as hope for the species appeared to die — only to see the animal recently get a second chance at life.

TURTLE 1

A Yangtze giant softshell turtle at the Suzhou Shangfangshan Forest Zoo in Suzhou, East China’s Jiangsu province.

The global population for the species, also known as Swinhoe’s softshell or the Hoan Kiem turtle, was thought to be down to just three — a male born more than a century ago that now resides in the Suzhou Shangfangshan Forest Zoo in the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou, and two others seen swimming in separate lakes in Vietnam. That population got a fourth member last year when another turtle was spotted in Vietnam’s Dong Mo Lake — the same lake where one of the earlier two turtles had been sighted. In October, one of the turtles from Dong Mo Lake was captured and later confirmed as a female.

“The possibility of sustaining the species will only exist if we have a male and female turtle,” said Lü Shunqing, a Chinese member of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), who was involved in China’s own earlier efforts to save the turtle from extinction. A small scar on his hand speaks to those efforts as he was bitten during an artificial insemination attempt that failed.

TURTLE 2

A male Yangtze giant softshell turtle, which is now more than 100 years old, rests in a pond at the Suzhou Shangfangshan Forest Zoo. Photo: Courtesy of Suzhou Zoo

The Yangtze giant softshell turtle can weigh more than 100 kilograms (220 pound) and measure up to 1 meter (3 feet, 3 inches) in length, making it one of the world’s largest freshwater species. It was once widely found in river basins across Central Asia and the Middle East. But its numbers have diminished in recent millennia due to motion of the Tibetan Plateau, which gradually led to the destruction of its habitat. More recently, the species’ downfall has accelerated due to hunting for its meat and also its eggs.

By the end of 2005, there were only five of the turtles known in the world, four in China and one in Vietnam, all raised in captivity. The one in Vietnam would later die in 2012, while the four in China became the subject of an intense breeding campaign based at the Suzhou Zoo to try to save the species. That program drew in experts from organizations both at home and abroad, including the WCS, the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens.

TURTLE 3

A Yangtze giant softshell turtle’s statue sits on display near the pond. Photo: Kang Jia/Caixin

The program got off to a rough start. Of the four turtles in China when the project began in 2006, two died a year later. The remaining two were the 100-year-old male at the Suzhou Zoo and a more than 80-year-old female at a zoo in the Central China city of Changsha.

In May 2008, that remaining pair were brought together in a pond at the Suzhou Zoo. “It was such an exciting moment that the whole world was watching,” Lü recalled. People eager to see the endangered animals waited by the pond early that morning, some climbing the surrounding fence for a better view, according to the documentary “The Loneliest Animals.” Some even brought telescopes.

The turtles mated that year, and the female laid over 100 eggs. The process was almost “too smooth,” said Lü, recalling that he figured at least some of the eggs would be fertile and bear young new turtles.

TURTLE 6

Dozens of eggs that were laid in the sand by the female Yangtze giant softshell turtle. Photo: Courtesy of Lü Shunqing

But in the end none of the eggs turned out to be fertile. The female would go on to lay eggs several times between 2008 and 2013, some of those fertile. But despite the team’s efforts none produced baby turtles. With the male getting older and less able to mate, the team finally had to turn to artificial insemination — a highly risky process — as a last resort starting in 2015.

“On one hand, we had to use electricity to stimulate the turtle, which was dangerous,” said Chen Daqing, who headed the project at the Suzhou Zoo. “On the other hand, the turtle was old, so we were already mentally prepared” that it might die.

TURTLE 4

Gerald Kuching, an animal expert from the Turtle Survival Alliance, performs artificial insemination on a female Yangtze giant softshell turtle. Photo: Courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society member Lü Shunqing

During that process experts discovered the male turtle’s penis had been damaged, potentially explaining why so many eggs were previously infertile. Despite several attempts at the process, the male didn’t produce enough semen — and what he did produce was too lacking in vitality — to produce fertilized eggs. Their final attempt ended in April 2019 with the female turtle’s death, leaving the ancient male as the last known member of the species.

Di Min, an assistant in the operation, told Caixin that she cried when she heard about the female’s death. Although the cause of death remains uncertain, an expert said the female turtle had kidney and heart disease before she underwent the operation.

According to a report by the Zoological Society of London, turtles and tortoises account for 29 of the world’s 100 most endangered reptile species. Meanwhile, another report by the World Wildlife Fund shows the number of wildlife species in the world fell 68% between 1970 and 2016.

TURTLE 5

A light illuminates an unfertilized egg. Photo: Courtesy of Lü Shunqing

Contact reporter Wang Xintong (xintongwang@caixin.com) and editor Yang Ge (geyang@caixin.com)

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