Searching for the Heavenly Turtle: The Myth and Why It Matters

Sipping on a quintessential Hanoi egg coffee, I watched a seniors’ tai chi group congregate by the lake in city centre. Snuggled up in my $15 counterfeit NorthFace jacket, I breathed in the frosty air as our travelling trio sat on a second-floor balcony of a heritage building right in the heart of the capital.

It turns out winter exists in Southeast Asia and we had learnt it the hard way; arriving confidently from 35° Pattaya weather in shorts and flip flops only to make an immediate beeline to purchase winter gear in hopes of surviving the biting cold of Northern Vietnam. We took solace in our little cup of caffeine as we reflected on this shameful rookie mistake.

The egg coffee, now a must-do bucket list for any tourists in Hanoi, has an interesting story born out of Vietnamese resilience in times of war; a method passed down from when dairy was scarce, and people had to use whisked egg yolk in place of cream for their hot beverage. Coffee is one of many elements of cultural heritage that continues to play a big part in modern day Vietnam.

Vietnamese egg coffee (think heavily caffeinated coffee-flavoured custard) with an iconic Turtle Tower coffee art

Turning to face Hoan Kiem Lake as the seniors began to move in their coordinated routine, I realized that right in front of my budding conservationist eyes was another interesting heritage site where cultural legacy intermingles with modern conservation dilemma.

Hoan Kiem Lake at night with Turtle Tower right at its centre. Photo: Chantel Luu

The name Hoan Kiem lake translates roughly to “Lake of the Returned Sword”. Legend has it, Le Loi (later known as King Le Thai To, an independence hero) received a golden sword inscribed with words “Will of Heaven”. Believing this to be a godly gift from the Dragon King in his underwater palace, Le Loi used the sword to defeat Chinese army in the fight for Vietnamese freedom. Not long after independence, the new king was boating in this same lake when a giant turtle emerged asking him to return this Vietnamese Excalibur. The request was promptly granted, lending the name “Lake of the Returned Sword” as mystical turtle swam away with the heavenly gift.

Depiction of the mythical turtle and the golden sword.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Turtles have a sacred role in Vietnam, seen as an important link between heaven and earth. Coincidentally, Hoan Kiem lake was home to a giant turtle known as Cu Rua or “Great Grandfather”, believed by many to be the reincarnation of the legendary turtle from the story of Le Loi. As a cultural symbol representing Vietnamese independence, the death of Cu Rua in 2016 was a devastating loss for many and was seen as a bad omen for the government.

Conservationists around the world also mourned the death of Cu Rua as she (yes, great grandfather was actually a grandmother) was one out of the few remaining species of Rafetus swinhoei in the world. Known by many names, both scientific and common, this giant soft-shelled turtle is a controversial species with an intriguing past and a complicated future.

Cu Rua (actually found to be female from DNA sampling) in 2011 at Hoan Kiem lake. Source: European Press Agency

The many names given to R. swinhoei illustrate one of the uncertainties in conservation: duplicated species identification. According to GBIF (Global Biodiversity Information Facility), one of the authority figures in species database, there has been a total of 9 scientific and 5 common names used to describe this freshwater turtle.

Some Vietnamese biologists dubbed Cu Rua as a distinct species of Rafetus leloii, after the victorious King, on the basis of significant genetic and physical difference. Critics, however, argue that this is simply due to the difference in age between the individuals observed. Furthermore, the DNA screening from this so-called distinct species has never been made public.

Statue of Le Loi, Vietnamese hero and emperor, central to the myth of the heavenly turtle. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What’s in a name you ask? To understand the resolute distinction of Cu Rua as its own species, we must remember the important role it plays in the story of Vietnamese independence from China. Its endemicity to Vietnam is central to its revered status as a divine creature in modern day Vietnam and in constructing the Vietnamese national identity.

Listed by the IUCN as critically endangered, there are only four remaining R. swinhoei left in the world. Two of them, one male and one female, can be found in a captive breeding program in Suzhou Zoo, China. Unfortunately, despite being able to mate, they have not been able to produce any hatchlings as the male sperm quality is too low to produce viable eggs. Many rest their hopes on the possibility of mating this captive female with the two wild turtles left in Vietnam.

Waiting for an epic soft-shell romance for our captive female. GIF source: Andy Westhoff from Giphy

The dream of a turtle rendezvous between this female and its wild counterpart is unfortunately far from fruition. The elusive nature of this freshwater species and its penchant for complex lake habitats made it difficult for scientist to determine the sex of the two turtles left in the wild, let alone to monitor its wellbeing. One of them was last seen in 2007 in Lake Dong Mo on the outskirts of Hanoi. The other, was just recently discovered in Vietnam’s Lake Xuanh Khanh this Spring purely through sampling environmental DNA – genetic material left behind by animals from excretion or shedding skin. The scientists themselves have yet to physically see a turtle in this particular lake.

Even when science gets up to speed in identifying these two wild individuals, a cross-border romantic date between two giant turtles may be an intricate process involving tedious paperwork, mother nature’s blessing and most importantly, effective bilateral cooperation. Current geopolitical tension between China and Vietnam concerning territorial dispute in South China Sea reawakens the discourse on sovereignty and independence, potentially starring a very shy R.swinhoei in the heart of it all.

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