Endangered turtle may be last remaining

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The baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) may not be the only aquatic vertebrate from the Yangtze River that has gone extinct in recent times.

This dubious distinction may be shared by the Yangtze giant soft-shell turtle (sometimes known as the Shanghai soft-shell turtle and known in Chinese as the Banbie, Rafetus swinhoei).

Rafetus swinhoei is possibly the largest freshwater turtle in the world (males weigh up to 100 kg), and is found in the Yangtze River and Lake Taihu in central China.

It is believed that a combination of habitat loss and hunting for food and medicinal use have led to the decline of this species.

By 2004, only six individuals were known to be still alive: three in Chinese zoos in Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou, two others reportedly in a Budhist temple in Suzhou and a sixth in a lake in the centre of Hanoi (this last individual is thought by some to belong to a different species, R. leloii).

By August 2007, three of the six individuals had died: the ones in the Beijing and Shanghai zoo, and one in the Buddhist temple; experts visiting the temple found no evidence that a second turtle existed.

This left the one in Suzhou zoo, an ageing male about 100 years old, as the last confirmed individual. In January this year, a second individual, a female about 80 years old, was serendipitously discovered in another Chinese zoo in Changsha.

This happened when a veterinarian from the Changsha zoo was attending a conference about endangered tigers in a Suzhou hotel wandered into another conference on the turtle being held at the same hotel in January this year.

The veterinarian told herpetologists at the turtle conference that there was a similar turtle in his zoo, a fact that was quickly verified by experts from the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The turtle in the Changsha zoo had been a gift from a travelling circus that had performed at the zoo in 1956.

The Changsha and Suzhou zoos reached an agreement in September this year to allow scientists to attempt artificial insemination next spring, a process that experts say far from guarantees results.

The future of the turtle and other Chinese endangered animals is certainly far from rosy.

Lu Zhi, a professor of conservation biology at Beijing University and head of the Chinese affiliate of Conservation International told the New York Times: So many species are neglected. Look at the baiji. The extinction was announced and what has been done? Nothing. People felt pity. This turtle will be next.