The last known female Swinhoe's softshell turtle—the most endangered turtle species in the world—died in April 2019, leaving the last known male without a mate and the species headed for extinction, reports Harry Baker for Live Science. In a positive turn of events, researchers discovered a wild female in Dong Mo Lake in Vietnam last October, offering a glimmer of hope for saving the species.
Swinhoe’s softshell turtles, also known as the Hoan Kiem turtle or Yangtze giant softshell turtle, were pushed to the brink of extinction by habitat destruction and by hunters who sought the turtles' meat and eggs. As a result, the government legally protected the species in 2013, reports the Guardian's Damian Carrington.
While monitoring the lake, the team of conservationists managed to capture the nearly 190-pound giant, examine her, collecte blood samples and insert a microchip. To their relief, she was in great shape, and they later released her back into the lake that day, according to a press release.
"In a year full of bad news and sadness across the globe, the discovery of this female can offer all some hope that this species will be given another chance to survive," Hoang Bich Thuy, the country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society Vietnam, says in the press release.
The team spent weeks monitoring the lake, hoping to find a Swinhoe's softshell turtle—and their efforts paid off. Not only did they discover and capture the female, but they also spotted a second, larger turtle in the same lake, which they believe is a male. Plus, they suspect a third turtle may lurk in the nearby Xuan Khanh lake, reports the Guardian.
"Once we know the sex of the animals in Vietnam, we can make a clear plan on the next steps, hopefully we have a male [and a] female, in which case breeding and recovery of the species becomes a real possibility," Timothy McCormack, the program director of the Asian Turtle Program of Indo-Myanmar Conservation, says in the press release.
There had been previous efforts to breed the last remaining male, who lives at the Suzhou Zoo in China, with the last female. They had been together since 2008 but never produced offspring naturally, so conservationists attempted to artificially inseminate the female in 2019. Both turtles were deemed healthy for the procedure, but the female died of complications, bringing breeding efforts to a screeching halt, the Indo-Asian News Service reports.
"This is the best news of the year, and quite possibly the last decade, for global turtle conservation," Andrew Walde, the chief operating officer of the Turtle Survival Alliance, says in the press release. "As the most endangered turtle on Earth, a tremendous amount of energy and resources have been dedicated to the preservation of Swinhoe’s softshell turtle. Following the loss of the only known female at the time in 2019, the confirmation of this wild specimen as female is a cause for celebration for all those who have worked tirelessly to see this turtle species survive."