Author Topic: The 600-years old Tortue  (Read 1596 times)

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The 600-years old Tortue
« on: April 22, 2005, 02:48:56 AM »
Zoologist Ha Dinh Duc, one of Hanoi's best-known characters and world famous in his field for tracking the huge turtle living in the center of Vietnam's capital, is retiring soon.

But he is not giving up his quest for recognition of the turtle as a unique species after 15 years of following its movements in the murky green water.

"I call the turtle great-grandfather," said Duc, 65, who displays an obvious attachment to the 2-meter (6 ft 7 in) long and 1.1-meter (3 ft 7 in) wide endangered turtle he named after an emperor.

"Nobody knows the exact age of the turtle, but for me, it is maybe more than 600 years old."

The legend told over the years to Vietnamese children and now to an increasing number of tourists is that 15th century Emperor Le Loi used a magic heavenly sword to drive out Ming invaders from neighboring China.

A giant turtle emerged while Le Loi was boating on the lake and told him to return the sword to the Dragon King.

The weapon shot from its sheath into the mouth of the turtle, which disappeared underwater.

Thereafter, the body of water called Ho Luc Thuy (Green Water Lake) became known as Ho Hoan Kiem, or "The Lake of the Returned Sword" or "restored sword" in some translations.

In 2000, Duc named the giant turtle Rafetus Leloii. The zoologist gleefully says that his fellow Vietnamese call him "Professor Turtle".

Tourist draw

Now, more than a decade after Vietnam opened its doors to the outside world, thousands of tourists flock annually to the lake to learn about the legend and perhaps catch a glimpse of the "monster" turtle estimated to weigh about 200 kg (440 lb).

Most travelers have to settle for visiting a temple on the lake that displays a preserved replica of one giant turtle found in the 1960s.

With tourism booming in Hanoi, it is not surprising that there have been more giant turtle sightings reported in recent years.

Five already this year, 27 in 2004 and 29 in 2003, compared with just nine between 1991 and 1993 - the years Duc first began campaigning to protect the endangered turtle and urban lake.

The slightly built, bespectacled professor records all reported sightings of Rafetus Leloii on a computer at his house in Hanoi. The room is filled with turtle books, photographs, videotapes and documents, some stacked untidily on the floor.

He has about 300 photographs of the turtle's activity on the lake, including images of its pudgy, human-sized head peeking above the surface. Duc's pictures show that the "monster" has a distinctive white spot on the back of its head.

Duc, who will retire this year from the College of Natural Sciences at Hanoi National University, does not know exactly why there have been more reported sightings. No one knows what the turtle eats, he said, but probably anything it can find.

Nor does Duc know whether the turtle is male or female or how it came to be in the lake, but he is convinced it is the largest freshwater turtle alive. There are larger marine turtles around the world.

One of a kind

"I think this is a very, very special species for Vietnam because there is only one," Duc said. Three of their kind appeared in the lake in the 1960s and all died.

"I have spent some time looking in lakes and rivers in Vietnam and I have not found any others."

Western turtle expert Douglas Hendrie and other scientists have written that there are other turtles of the same species in China.

World Conservation Union scientist Hendrie told an environmental conference in Vietnam last month that the giant turtle is thought to be one of six of its species remaining.

There are 10 other turtle species in the lake, Duc said. Just over a year ago, invasive red-eared sliders, native to the United States and kept as pets, appeared in the lake.

The species "eat everything" and were probably put there by people who were tired of keeping them as pets, Duc said.

All 28 turtle species found in Vietnam are listed as endangered by international conservationists.

Admired for their longevity and sometimes eaten as an aphrodisiac, turtles are considered a culinary delicacy in Vietnam and several other Asian countries.

A stew of tofu, banana and turtle, including the bones and shell, can cost as much as 100 USD in a Hanoi restaurant.

It seems unlikely that Rafetus Leloii will end up on anyone's dinner plate because of its near-sacred status in Vietnam, but it may die before all of the mysteries of its existence are known.
The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world that he did not exist. - Charles Baudelaire (French and monstrous poet).