World’s largest freshwater turtle is now ‘functionally extinct’
After the last female Yangtze giant softshell dies, experts say only a 'time machine' can save the species, of which there are now just three
One of the world’s rarest turtles, a Yangtze giant softshell, has died in a Chinese zoo, leaving only three of the critically endangered species left.
The turtle was the last confirmed female in the world when it died during fertility treatment, raising the grim prospect that the turtle, which is also known as the Red River giant and is native to China and Vietnam, may now be functionally extinct.
The female was more than 90 years old when it died on Saturday in the Suzhou zoo in southern China after a round of artificial insemination, the fifth since 2008. It was moved 965km on a risky journey to Suzhou from the Changsha Ecological Zoo 11 years ago to be paired with the male turtle there in a last attempt to save the species. The zoo had tried for several years to get the turtles to mate and reproduce naturally. The process was hampered by damage to the male’s penis, which had been caused in a fight.
The male Yangtze giant softshell, now more than 100 years old, is still housed at the zoo but the other two remaining creatures are living in the wild in lakes near Hanoi, Vietnam, and their sex is unknown. The turtle is extremely secretive and only rarely comes up to breathe.
The Yangtze giant softshell turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in the world, growing to almost a metre long and weighing up to 100kg. It can be recognised by its pig-like snout and the females can lay up to 80 eggs at a time. Its main habitat was once the Yangtze river and other inland China waterways. It was previously native to eastern and southern China and the last known specimen caught in the wild was in 1998 in the Red River between Yuanyang and Jianshui.
The species has been all but wiped out by centuries of hunting, overfishing and the destruction of its habitat through pollution, shipping and hydroelectric dams. According to National Geographic, by the late 1990s human encroachment and poaching for use of the shells and bones in Chinese traditional medicine had rapidly depleted the population. It said researchers had been unable to pinpoint the reason for the pair’s inability to breed but that they suspected a combination of factors, including poor sperm quality because of the male’s age, an improper mating posture and stress on the female.
A previous attempt at artificial insemination by scientists from the Turtle Survival Alliance and the Wildlife Conservation Society was described as a “last chance” to breed the turtle. China’s state-run People’s Daily reported that the female had been in good medical condition before the last attempt at fertility treatment and that the procedure had appeared to go well until the turtle did not wake up from anaesthesia and unexpectedly died the next day.
Its death has brought an end to the city authorities’ long-running plan to artificially breed and save the species. Ovarian tissue has been collected from the turtle and the zoo’s authorities said Chinese and foreign experts were investigating the cause of death.
Turtle Conservancy, a US-based environmental group, announced the news on its Facebook page, calling it “a tragic outcome for a team of dedicated conservationists who did everything they could to save them from extinction”. It added: “The most important takeaway from this devastating loss is the importance of establishing conservation programmes before a species gets to such a dire place.
“Before we knew it, we were left with only a handful of very old animals, and sadly, though many have worked tirelessly to save them, it seems as though the greatest conservation tool we could have for this species would be a time machine.”
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)