Gi­ant tur­tle ‘ex­tinct’ af­ter death at zoo

Ninety-year-old crea­ture dies sud­denly af­ter fer­til­ity treat­ment by Chi­nese zoo try­ing to save the species

The Daily Telegraph - - Front page - By Nicola Smith ASIA COR­RE­SPON­DENT

The Yangtze gi­ant soft­shell tur­tle has be­come “func­tion­ally ex­tinct” af­ter the last known fe­male died at a zoo in China. Sci­en­tists have spent years at­tempt­ing to pre­serve the species – the world’s largest fresh­wa­ter tur­tle – and the fe­male had been taken to Suzhou to be paired with a male kept there but died dur­ing fer­til­ity treat­ment. There are only two other known gi­ant soft­shells – liv­ing wild in lakes near Hanoi, Viet­nam – but it is not known if ei­ther is fe­male.

Poach­ing for use in tra­di­tional medicine de­pleted the pop­u­la­tion

‘It shows the im­por­tance of con­ser­va­tion pro­grammes be­fore a species gets to such a dire place’

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 600 miles 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 over 100, is still housed at the zoo but the other two re­main­ing crea­tures are liv­ing in the wild in lakes near Hanoi, Viet­nam, and their gen­der 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 39in long and weigh­ing up to 220lb. 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 Nineties 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 tur­tle 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.”

The fe­male that has now died, above, be­ing lifted from its pool at Suzhou zoo in 2015 and the male, left, in 2016 af­ter its se­men had been col­lected as part of the breed­ing pro­gramme


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