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The Scramble To Save Sacred Turtle

March 5, 2011

Hundreds of Vietnamese are scrambling to clean up a lake in the capital city of Hanoi in hopes of saving a rare, ailing giant turtle that is considered a sacred symbol there.

Experts fear that pollution in Hoan Kiem Lake is killing the freshwater turtle, which has a soft shell the size of a desk. It is among the world’s most endangered animals species, with only four known to exist worldwide.

Teams are working around the clock to clean debris from the lake and pump fresh water in. They are also using sandbags to expand a small island to use as a makeshift “turtle hospital.” The workers may even try to net the turtle for the first time as part of the effort to save it.

The Hoan Kiem turtle is deeply rooted in Vietnamese folklore, and some believe the animal that lives in the lake now is the same creature that helped a Vietnamese king fight the Chinese off nearly 600 years earlier.

The animal has been only glimpsed in the past, as it rarely stuck its neck out of the water. But it has recently surfaced more frequently, alarming the public with visible wounds on its head, legs and shell.

After an emergency meeting was called, ten government agencies were put to work to try to save the endangered beast. Many Vietnamese have flocked to the lake in hopes of spotting the sacred turtle and newspapers have been running daily articles on its plight.

“For the Vietnamese, the Hoan Kiem lake turtle is the most sacred thing,” retired state employee Nguyen Thi Xuan, who traveled from a suburban district to try to get a glimpse of the animal, told The Associated Press. “He has helped the Vietnamese to defeat foreign invaders and also helped the country to have peace. I hope he will live forever.”

The lake is a city landmark for its curved red bridge leading to a temple on a tiny island, which is a popular site for tourists and Hanoians to exercise and relax.

But the lake has been littered with everything from bricks to plastic bags and even raw sewage. It is not an uncommon sight to see men urinating directly into the murky water. The pollution is slowly killing the turtle, a Vietnamese biologist warned.

“I believe the injuries were caused by sharp edges from debris in the lake,” said Ha Dinh Duc, who has studied the lone turtle for 20 years and considers himself its caretaker. “The poor quality of water also makes the conditions unbearable for the turtle.”

The rescuers hope they can coax the creature onto land so they can treat its wounds. But if the creature does not crawl onto land by itself, a net will be used to capture it. Veterinarians will then work at the so-called “turtle hospital” to take skin and shell samples for analysis, which hopefully will tell them what the animal needs for treatment. Photos of the turtle has revealed scar and open sores on its head and legs. Its shell is also partially covered with a white fungus-like material.

An American turtle expert living in Vietnam for 14 years said he is not convinced the ailments are not life-threatening because it’s behavior has not changed significantly. It is surfacing on warm days, as it should, and appears to be swimming freely and feeding.

“Every couple years here in Hanoi, people start saying the Hoan Kiem turtle is sick,” said Douglas Hendrie, a technical adviser for the nonprofit Education for Nature Vietnam and founder of the Asian Turtle Program.

The turtle’s age or gender is unknown, but Hendrie said experts estimate it to be between 80 and 100-plus years old. They believe it is possibly the most endangered freshwater turtle species in the world. It weighs an estimated 440 pounds and its shell measures 6 feet long and 4 feet wide.
One other species of this turtle in Vietnam, and two in a Chinese zoo.

A legend says that in the mid-15th century, King Le Loi defeated Chinese invaders with a magic sword given to him by the gods. After the victory, the king was said to be boating on the lake when a giant turtle rose to the surface and took the sword in its mouth before plunging deep into the waters to return it to its godly owners.

The tale became an important part of Vietnamese culture that continues to be taught in school and perform at popular water puppetry shows. The Vietnamese people call the turtle “cu rua,” a word given of great respect reserved for great-grandfathers.

Image Caption: Rôa Hoàn KiáºÂ¿m (Credit: Nguyồ¦n Thanh Quang)

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