Last Female of Endangered Turtle Species Dies

The Yangtze giant soft-shell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) is one of the most endangered species on the planet. On April 21, the last-known female washed up dead in Dong Mo Lake, Vietnam. The cause of death is unknown. The species is now functionally extinct.

The Dong Mo Lake turtle was only discovered in October 2020. It gave a sliver of hope for the survival of this freshwater species. At the time, three male turtles remained.

Final attempts to save the species

Before the Dong Mo Lake discovery, scientists thought that the last female Yangtze giant softshell turtle had died in April 2019. That 90-year-old turtle lived in captivity at the Suzhou Zoo in China. Attempts to breed her naturally with a 100-year-old male at the same zoo failed because the male had a damaged penis. Instead, they tried putting the female under anesthesia to artificially inseminate her. She died shortly after.

A Yangtze giant soft-shell turtle in Dong Mo Lake, Vietnam.

The last female turtle lived in Dong Mo Lake, Vietnam. Photo: WCS Vietnam


When the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) found a new turtle in Dong Mo Lake, they initially thought that it was a male. But on closer inspection, they discovered that the 1.5m, 93kg turtle was female.

Huang Bich Thuy, director of the WCS, said at the time: “In a year full of bad news and sadness across the globe [it was the height of COVID], the discovery of this female can offer all some hope that this species will have another chance to survive.”

Everyone working on the project hoped this new female would mate with a male in the same lake. Conservationists even built a nest near the lake to encourage her to lay eggs.

The Yangtze giant soft-shell turtle.

The Yangtze giant soft-shell turtle. Photo: Asian Turtle Program


Devastating to the chances of survival

When the dead turtle washed up in April, experts hoped it might be another turtle they had not previously observed. Sadly, that was not the case. “It is the same individual that we’ve been monitoring in recent years. It’s a real blow,” Tim McCormack from Indo-Myanmar Conservation (IMC) told Time magazine.

Many local people were also devastated. Locals call this species the Hoan Kiem turtle because of a Vietnamese legend. According to legend, in the 15th century, a turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi presented emperor Le Lou with a sword. He used the sword to defeat occupying Chinese forces. The turtles are also a symbol of longevity and wisdom.

There may be another female in a lake somewhere that conservationists are unaware of. But regardless, the species is on the very brink of extinction. It is the most endangered reptile on earth.

The Yangtze giant soft-shell turtle.

The Yangtze giant soft-shell turtle. Photo: Scientific American


The massive turtles were first discovered in 1873. They are the largest freshwater turtle and people used to see them frequently in the Yangtze River and nearby freshwater lakes, but humans have pushed them to extinction. People hunted them for meat, stole their eggs for traditional medicine, and polluted their habitat.

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.