A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

Note: Comments are moderated. If you include a link, your comment will not be published. As you will note, I do not accept ads on my website and that includes in comments.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Great-Grandfather Turtle

Six hundred years ago, a rebel leader named Lê Lợi used a magical sword to drive out the Chinese from his country.  He had gotten the blade from a fisherman who found it in his nets.  The blade had no handle but was engraved with the words "According to the will of the Sky".  After he defeated the Chinese he became king in 1428 CE, and settled in the city that is now Hanoi.  One day he was boating on a lake and a giant turtle emerged from the water.  Terrified, the king drew his sword, but the turtle moved quickly and the sword fell into the lake.  The king thought that the turtle must be the true owner of the magic sword, which had only been lent to him.  Now that the kingdom was restored and there was peace, it was time that the sword was returned to its divine owner.

Hoan Kiêm Lake with the Turtle Tower.

This is the legend of Hoan Kiêm, the Lake of the Restored Sword.  Every schoolchild in Vietnam learns this story.  The lake once was the home of now endangered turtles known as the Red River giant softshell turtle, or Rafetus Swinhoei.  Called "Cu Rua", a word of great respect reserved for great-grandfathers, what is believed to be the last one in Hanoi has been the focus of a trapping attempt.

It is considered a sign of good luck to see the turtle, which formerly was infrequently.  Lately, however, it is surfacing more and more often.  That is not a problem in itself, but the cause for alarm is the visible open wounds on its head, neck, and legs.  There are lesions on its shell, which is also covered with a white fungus.

While rumor has it that this is the same turtle who took the magic sword six hundred years ago, experts believe this turtle to be somewhere in the vicinity of 80 - 100 years old.  Their life expectancy is about 175 years.  This turtle is estimated to be about 400 pounds, and is almost six feet long by four feet wide.  Think of a large desk.

There are only four such turtles left in the world.  Another is in Vietnam, and two - a breeding pair - are in Suzhou Zoo in China, where it is hoped they will breed. Although the turtles are said to have once been abundant in Hoan Kiêm Lake, there is only this one left.  This is a result of a lack of foresight and disregard for the environment that runs rampant the world over.  The banks of this lake have been cemented, as seen in the above picture.  The banks are where the turtles once deposited their eggs.  The lake has been polluted and for years a clean-up procedure has been implemented.  It is still polluted, with debris and raw sewage.

Some believe the injuries spotted on the turtle are the result of it brushing up on the sharp edges of some the debris - bricks and concrete blocks have been found. Others think they may be from red-eared turtles that people let loose in the lake when they tire of them as pets.  The lake is only about five feet deep, but the bottom is a thick layer of sludge containing industrial pollutants.

Turtle Tower is built on a small islet in the lake.  Once the turtle would crawl up on the banks and rest, but a solid embankment was built that prevented the turtle from reaching the islet.  By making the islet accessible once again, it is hoped that the turtle could be lured there.  A rectangular enclosure has been set up in the water at one end to serve as a hospital, with a filtered water tank.  Once placed there, samples of its skin and shell will be taken to determine what treatment is called for.

Turtle Tower.  Image courtesy of Jon Rawlinson/Wikipedia.

There is a question of whether the stress and capture will further weaken the turtle, but experts believe that it is necessary to physically evaluate the turtle.  So far it has resisted attempts, and even escaped from the nets that were trying to capture it. The campaign continues, and people are traveling from afar to see the process.

Image courtesy of Brian D. Horne/Wildlife Conservation Society.

Turtles are an emblem of longevity in cultures all over the world, including Vietnam.  There is a Confucian temple in Vietnam called Văn Miếu, which was established in 1070 CE.  It holds stele that sit on stone turtles and are inscribed with the names and birthplaces of men who were awarded doctorates at the Imperial Academy between 1484 and 1780.  There are other legends of sacred turtles in addition to Lê Lợi.

The Confucian temple in Hanoi with steles supported by turtles.
Image courtesy of Daniel Vaulot via Wikipedia.

The world is watching to see what becomes of Great-Grandfather Turtle. Hopefully he will be safely trapped and healed, and the efforts to deal with the lake's pollution will be successful.  May this auspicious turtle and all other endangered species survive the thoughtlessness of human beings!
Unless otherwise stated, all images courtesy of the Associated Press.


  1. Thanks for beautiful writing on a tragic topic - here's hoping everything turns around for the turtle and that the humans lighten up on the pollution in the lake! -Sybil

  2. 4 left in the world. The clock ticks, the few that are left continue to age and approach death, and survival as a species and as individuals is based on underfunded and underprioritized efforts.

    Spectularly beautiful and innocuous animals whose lineage dates back 200 million years. These are creatures who are entitled to regard the brontosaur and mastodon as brief zoological fads, but who are now being removed from existence as a result of the all-consumptive nature of man. Tragic.