Mission to save the rare turtle of Vietnamese myth and legend

A rescue operation is underway to catch and treat a rare and ailing Vietnamese turtle that is revered as a powerful symbol of the nation's independence struggle.

Thousands gathered yesterday around Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of Hanoi, climbing trees and jostling for position, to watch as dozens of workers waded into the water and took to boats to try and catch the turtle, believed to be seriously sick. At one point, the workers appeared to have caught the creature using a net but he broke free and swam off again, with the officials in pursuit. Even the military has been called in to help.

The turtle in Hoan Kiem is a Rafetus swinhoei, commonly known as a red river giant softshell turtle, and one of the rarest species of turtle in the world. There are believed to be just four still surviving and the one in the lake in Hanoi is one of just two not living in a zoo.

In recent days, images have emerged of the turtle with open pink sores on its wrinkled legs and neck. The images, published on the front pages of the country's newspapers have triggered widespread concern that something needs to done urgently. It is believed that rubbish and sewage finding its way into the lake, where crowds of people exercise every morning, have created a level of toxicity in the dirty green water that is slowly poisoning the animal.

The rarity of the turtle, reportedly known as great-grandfather and believed to be 80 to 100 years old, would be enough reason to save the animal and clean up the lake. In recent days, teams of volunteers have been removing rubbish and overseeing an operation to pump in clean water.

But the passion behind the effort is also driven by the status of reverence afforded to the 440lb animal that is more than one metre in length. Many Vietnamese people believe folklore that says the turtle is the same one described in the legend of King Le Loi, who is said to have defeated Chinese invaders with a magic sword given to him by the gods.

After the victory, the king was said to have been in a boat on the lake when a giant golden turtle made its way to the surface and took the sword and plunged back into the depths, keeping the weapon for when Vietnam needed it to fight for its freedom again.

"The Vietnamese believe the turtle is a guardian of a magical sword, Thuan Thiên, or Will of Heaven," said Dana Healy, a Vietnam expert at University of London's School of African and Oriental Studies. "Hence the name of the lake in the middle of Hanoi, the Lake of Returned Sword, or Hoan Kiem."

Even those who do not believe the turtle is the same one talked of in the legend, respect it as a symbol of the country's long and bloody struggle for independence, and rare sightings of the animal are considered auspicious.

"I'm really glad that I'm part of the rescue operation and, hopefully, it will bring luck to my family," said Nguyen Thanh Liem, a retired army captain, who was helping pull the net. "I wish he would be immortal to bless our nation."

In a recent report, the international Turtle Conservation Coalition placed the Rafetus swinhoei in second position on a list of the 25 most threatened turtles. It said that in addition to the specimen in the centre of Hanoi, there was another in a lake to the west of the city and two more – a male and a female – in a Chinese zoo where efforts are being made to encourage them to breed. While eggs have been produced every year since 2008, all have died during incubation.

The report added: "It is hard to believe that such a magnificent creature is almost gone."

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