Oct. 10, 2003 New York (Oct. 9)-- After surviving for thousands of years in the lakes of Southeast Asia, the East Asian giant softshell turtle may finally be faced with extinction, as the last member of the species lingers on in Vietnam's Hoan Kiem Lake. Reptile specialists from the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society recently observed the reptile in its last known habitat and fear it may live out its final years without a mate.
"This individual could very well be the last of its kind," said John Behler, Curator of Herpetology at the Bronx Zoo, who confirmed that the turtle still exists in Hoan Kiem Lake. "We know next to nothing about this species or its habitat requirements, other than the fact that it is extremely rare and is presumably on the brink of extinction."
Freshwater turtles and tortoises across Asia have become increasingly endangered by a wide variety of threats, such as collection for local consumption, and collection for regional and international food and the pet trade. Of the approximately 90 species of freshwater turtles and tortoises that occur in South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia and New Guinea, more than a third are listed in the World Conservation Union's 1996 Red List of Threatened Species as Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered. Asian turtles did receive some good news in 2001, when China, a main market for the growing trade in turtles for both food and medicine, restricted the importation of all turtles and tortoises from Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia.
As for the East Asian giant softshell turtle, other individuals may still exist in the Red River floodplain, but the only recent sighting is the five-foot-long turtle that was spotted by Behler, WCS Asian Turtle Conservation coordinator Doug Hendrie, and WCS veterinarian Paul Calle near Ngoc Son Temple Island on the north end of Hoan Kiem Lake. "No one knows how long this turtle has lived in this lake, or where it came from," added Behler. "Hopefully, it's not the last, and perhaps other individuals can be found to study and, if possible, save."
WCS works to save turtles and tortoises both within Asia and around the world, through research on the ecological needs of different species and by working with governments to limit trade. Scientists working in the WCS Marine Program are working to protect marine turtles as well, specifically along the coast of Nicaragua and in the wider Caribbean, and along the coast of Gabon in Central Africa.
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