Hanoi’s famous Hoan Kiem turtle is captured to receive veterinary care


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HANOI, Vietnam — Veterinarians examined a rare giant turtle considered sacred by many Vietnamese at a makeshift hospital in Hanoi on Monday to check mysterious lesions afflicting one of the last four known members of its species.

The giant soft-shell turtle, which has a shell the size of a desk and is estimated to weigh about 440 pounds, was pulled from a lake in the heart of the capital Sunday.


Tests were being run to try to pinpoint what is ailing the creature, said Tim McCormack, program coordinator of the Asian Turtle Program. He said photos taken of it in a holding tank showed injuries on its legs and elsewhere, but it was not yet clear how serious they are.

The animal is believed to be about 80 to 100 years old, though many Vietnamese believe it is the same mythical creature said to have helped King Le Loi fend off the Chinese nearly six centuries ago.

It took 50 workers two hours Sunday to net the turtle, put it in a cage and pull it to a small island in Hoan Kiem Lake that was recently expanded and equipped with the small holding tank, known as the ‘turtle hospital.’

It is the first time anyone has captured the creature, which escaped through two nets during a similar rescue attempt last month. Thousands of onlookers crammed around the lake for a glimpse, which is considered lucky. The crowd whooped and clapped when the turtle was finally captured, but they were pushed back when it was taken to the island. A guard is now posted near the site, allowing entry only to accredited officials.

Concerns had mounted after the turtle was recently spotted with lesions on its head and shell, prompting the government to form committees and employ hundreds of workers to frantically clean debris and pollution from the lake.

The species, Rafetus swinhoei, is one of the world’s most endangered freshwater turtles. There is one other male turtle of the same species in another lake in Vietnam and a male and female at a zoo in China, where a breeding program has so far proved unsuccessful. The gender of the Hoan Kiem turtle remains a mystery, since it would require turning the animal upside down to be able to fully examine the tail, McCormack said.


While the Hoan Kiem turtle probably will be off-limits to any kind of breeding program because of its cultural status, McCormack said he’s hopeful an exchange can be set up between China and Vietnam to include the other male turtle.

But its value to the nation has more to do with the centuries-old myth than with its rarity.

The mythical turtle is said to have given King Le Loi a divine sword to defeat the Chinese. Later, when the king was boating in Hanoi, the turtle snatched back the sword before plunging deep into the water to return it to its divine owners.

Hoan Kiem Lake, which serves as the capital’s centerpiece, translates as ‘Lake of the Returned Sword.’

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Top photo: Conservation worker Nguyen Quang Hue touches the turtle after it was caught in Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi on April 3. Credit: Na Son Nguyen / Associated Press