In the historical heart of Hanoi, capital of Vietnam lies the beautiful freshwater lake known as the Hoàn Kiếm lake. Until very recently, this lake was home to an unusual animal: the Hoàn Kiếm turtle.
Thought by some to be its own species, this turtle was claimed to only live in this one lake. But sadly the last of these turtles, named Cụ Rùa or “Great Grandfather Turtle” died in 2016. Since then, with no more turtles in the lake, many have been asking if there are other such turtles to be found elsewhere.
To do that, researchers need to understand more about this unusual and special turtle. Maybe more can be found to bring back to the lake, but first a more basic answer must be found: what exactly was the Hoàn Kiếm turtle?
What was the Hoan Kiem turtle?
The death of Cụ Rùa, considered a symbol of good luck and auspiciousness, shocked the entire country of Vietnam. The cause of death is still not clear, but the last turtle was believed to be at least a hundred years old. Some even claimed the turtle was as much as 700 years old.
This turtle was very large, weighing around 360 pounds (163 kg) at its death, and got its name as it was often seen found floating around Hoàn Kiếm lake in Hanoi where it was assumed that it lived. This turtle had a special place in the heart of the Vietnamese, and people from all across the country used to come to this Hoàn Kiếm lake to see a glimpse of this unusual creature.
Scientists are divided on whether the Hoàn Kiếm turtle was a separate species. Some believe the turtles seen in Hoàn Kiếm lake were Yangtze giant soft-shell turtles. These are the largest freshwater turtle in the world and critically endangered across its habitat, with only 4-6 known survivors.
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However, others believe that the Hoàn Kiếm turtle is a unique species. If that is the case, with the death of Cụ Rùa this legendary turtle may be extinct.
The Turtle and Vietnam
The four animals that the Vietnamese people consider sacred are the Phoenix, Unicorn, Dragon, and Turtle. Amongst these, the turtle is the only animal that exists in real life. The people believed that the giant turtle of Hanoi was an important link between the earthly and spiritual world. It was a strong symbol of the endurance of the country’s capital through decades of war.
The first stories of a sacred turtle appear with the 15th century emperor of Vietnam Lê Lợi, founder of the Lê dynasty. It was said that this emperor won Vietnamese independence from China with the help of a magical sword called Heaven’s Will.
The sword had been given to him by Kim Quy, the mythical golden turtle god of Vietnamese legend. After his victory, Lê Lợi has on a boat on a lake when the god appeared to him, asking that the sword be returned.
The turtle took the famous sword and retreated into the depths of the lake. Lê Lợi then renamed the lake Hoàn Kiếm, which means the “Lake of the Returned Sword”.
There have been examples of these large turtles in Hoàn Kiếm lake for hundreds of years, and the turtles have also appeared to mark important events like the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of Hanoi. With the death of the last turtle, the whole country was in sadness.
People began to claim that the death of their ancient turtle was bad luck, or a sign given by god. They believed that something bad was about to happen, as said by Nguyen Thien Hung, the caretaker of Vu Thach Buddhist temple, which is situated near the Hoàn Kiếm Lake. The issue was so delicate that the state censors tried to prevent the news from spreading out.
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But the death of Cụ Rùa was not just a sacred loss but was also a loss to biology. If it was one of the last Yangtze giant turtles, efforts to save this species were dealt a major blow. If another species, it may now be lost entirely.
The End of the Hoàn Kiếm Turtle
In the year 2019, another rare Yangtze turtle died in Suzhou Zoo in southern China. The death of this female leaves the world with only a handful more of their kind, one in captivity in China and maybe 3-4 more in a lake in Vietnam.
The one living turtle of this species in China is a male, to survivor of the hoped for breeding pair held at the zoo. The ones living in the Vietnamese lake have an unknown gender, but it may be already too late as their population does not appear to be sustainable.
There is still hope for this turtle species to survive extinction. The authorities started to release programs and expeditions to look for any available turtle of this species in Hoàn Kiếm Lake or anywhere around the city’s jurisdiction. This plan by the Hanoi authorities intends to help find more species of this kind to not just conserve it but also to ensure that the legendary turtle lives on.
It is possible that, with radical changes to humanities treatment of the environment, these turtles could survive in the wild. But it seems that we will have to step in and save this turtle, at least for posterity, ourselves.
With human intervention there is still a chance for this turtle species to survive in this world. But first, the Hanoi authorities need to find a female turtle somewhere in their lakes. As there is a male turtle of this species living in Suzhou Zoo of China, there is a chance they could mate the turtles to let the legend live.
Is the Hoàn Kiếm turtle out there? The scientific community is hoping so.
Top Image: Will the turtles ever return? Source: Iarygin Andrii / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri
Pham, N, 2016. Cu Rua: Vietnam mourns revered Hanoi turtle. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-35358979
Wikipedia, 2022. Hoan Kiem turtle. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoan_Kiem_turtle
Ives, M, 2016. Vietnam’s Sacred Turtle Dies at an Awkward, Some Say Ominous, Time. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/23/world/asia/vietnam-turtle-hoan-kiem-lake.html
Deccan, Herald, 2021. The world’s rarest turtle has a shot at escaping extinction. Available at: https://www.deccanherald.com/science-and-environment/the-world-s-rarest-turtle-has-a-shot-at-escaping-extinction-943440.html
Cryptid wiki, 2021. Hoan Kiem Turtle. Available at: https://cryptidz.fandom.com/wiki/Hoan_Kiem_Turtle