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Issue Date: February 2010


Saving an Endangered 150-pound Turtle

Tim McCormack, 32, is a conservationist with the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo Asian Turtle Program. In 2008, a Swinhoe’s soft-shell turtle — one of four known to be left in the world — turned up in a Vietnamese fisherman’s net following a flood.
Tim McCormack
The turtle was in the fisherman’s courtyard, corralled in a small, makeshift pen and concealed by the net used to catch it. There were hundreds of people gathered who wanted to see it: wildlife officers, police, villagers and reporters. Occasionally, the fisherman would draw the net back. There would be a lot of excitement, and then he would cover the turtle again.

His wife was yelling, saying she wanted money for the animal. The fisherman claimed someone in Hanoi had already offered $1,000 for it. There’s quite a market in China for soft-shell turtles — mostly for food and traditional medicines. Many of the people gathered outside the home were arguing and taking sides about what should happen to the turtle.

This species is considered sacred to many people in this part of Vietnam. In the 15th century, King Le Loi took back Hanoi from the Chinese. Similar to the legend of King Arthur, he had a magical sword. One day he was out on Ho Hoan Kiem Lake, and a large turtle rose up and snatched the sword. There’s one Swinhoe’s soft-shell turtle living in that lake today. Some consider seeing it a sign of good fortune.

Our negotiations with the fisherman stretched for six or seven hours. One minute he was saying, “OK, I’m going to kill the animal right now.” The next minute he was saying, “No, no, OK, I’m going to sell it” or “I’m going to release it.” When he was going on about butchering it, my stomach started sinking.

If this animal had been killed, it would have made me think again about how realistic it is to try to conserve turtles in Southeast Asia. Wildlife crimes there aren’t always viewed seriously. The people involved are often poor, so the attitude is that prosecuting them is taking away their livelihood.

Finally, one of the authorities convinced the fisherman that what he was doing was illegal and that he had to hand over the turtle. He ultimately agreed to our offer of replacing his damaged nets in exchange for the animal.

I was afraid that the turtle would lash out when my team picked it up. Soft-shells can be very aggressive. Other turtles will retract into their shell. Soft-shells will often try to bite you. But when we slid the turtle onto the tarpaulin, it just sat there. We covered its head so it wouldn’t get too freaked out as we moved it. It took six of us to lift the animal.

Police held back the crowd as we made our way to the truck, fighting our way through people who were trying to take photos or just catch a glimpse of the turtle. As we pulled away in the truck, a few people followed on motorbikes all the way to a flat bank on Dong Mo Lake, about a 10-minute drive away.

It was dark when we got there, but there were people with torches and flashing cameras. We carried the turtle to the water’s edge, but it wouldn’t move. Once we splashed some water across its shell, it scrambled away and vanished beneath the surface. All that was left were a few ripples. — as told to Ryan Dezember

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