Xuan Khanh Lake, shaped like a boiled chicken’s foot, sits on the outskirts of Hanoi, Vietnam, a city of more than seven million people. You can catch the bus there. On its shores, chimney stacks from a garbage-processing plant are silhouetted against a sky cross-hatched with power lines and transmission towers. There are piles of stored garbage which contaminate the water, and on one of the peninsulas reaching inside the claw of the chicken foot, there’s a prison.
In April, this is where conservationists found hope for one of the rarest animals in the world which, despite being near extinction, keeps resurfacing.
The Asian Turtle Program stationed local staff members on the shore of the lake to monitor it full-time. They logged thousands of hours watching the lake’s surface for the tell-tale snout of the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei). Until as recently as 30 years ago, the turtles were relatively common throughout northern Vietnam. Now there are four of them in the whole world. Twenty years ago, we only knew of two.
“Sometimes it felt like we were fighting a hopeless battle,” said Hoang Van Ha, the program’s coordinator. “But now we know there are animals out there, waiting for us.”
Environmental DNA testing — in which trace DNA left by the turtle in the lake’s water is matched with DNA previously collected from other individuals of the species — has recently confirmed that there is a Swinhoe’s softshell turtle persisting, improbably, in the toxic swamp of Xuan Khanh Lake.
The Swinhoe’s softshell turtle looks almost less real than the Loch Ness Monster. Its face has what can only be described as a penile quality, and its long neck can be retracted back into its body as if it’s wearing a turtleneck of its own skin (I can’t believe how many people I spoke to about this turtle and nobody ever said the word “foreskin”). Where any other self-respecting turtle would have a shell, the Swinhoe has a flat expanse of pliable cartilage, making its overall appearance like the first soggy pancake you toss out of the pan, hopeful the next one will be better.
“The photograph we got looks like one of those grainy Loch Ness Monster photos from the 1960s, the sock on a stick,” said Tim McCormack, the program director at the Asian Turtle Program.
One other confirmed wild turtle lives in a different, less-polluted Hanoi lake called Dong Mo. The Asian Turtle Program knows this because it put the turtle back there themselves after government authorities and NGOs negotiated its release from a fisherman in 2008. There are two more in captivity, behind bullet-proof glass and round-the-clock protection in a Chinese zoo (where they are known, awkwardly, as Yangtze giant softshell turtles). Despite considerable efforts over a long period of time, the captive breeding program there has failed to produce any fertilized eggs. Even with the latest discovery in Xuan Khanh this year, these soggy pancake-turtles make only a very short stack of four.
Unlike hard-shell turtles, which are traditionally traded north for the Chinese medicine trade, softshell turtles were commonly sold at markets for about the same price as fish to be eaten.
“It wasn’t special, just protein,” McCormack said.
Exacerbating the effects of hunting, swampy delta areas in which the turtles lived were altered by irrigation and development. Natural water fluctuations meant turtles had reduced access to the sandbanks where they nested. It wasn’t only the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle that was affected — of the world’s 25 most-endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles, 17 species are from the Asian region.
What makes the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle different from other species in similarly dire straits — and why the discovery in Xuan Khanh Lake matters so much — is that its extinction would be a very big deal to Vietnam. Not because of its ecological significance, or its irreplaceably flaccid countenance, but because of its origin story.
As the tale goes, Emperor Le Thai To had just defeated the invading Chinese army using a magical sword gifted to him by the Golden Turtle God in 15th-century Vietnam. Soon after the victory, the Emperor was boating on a lake in Hanoi — about 40 miles east of Xuan Khanh —when an enormous turtle rose out of the water and snatched back the sword. The lake was named “Hoan Kiem,” meaning “Lake of the Returned Sword,” and is now the symbolic center of the city.
I heard this story even before I arrived in Hanoi in 2009 during an orientation for volunteers like me who were traveling to Vietnam with an Australian government-aid program. The turtle legend was told to us by an elderly, revered writer, identified by the volunteer program as a “culturalist.” At the conclusion of the story, he folded his arms on the table in front of him and said:
“That very same turtle is still living in the lake. It is now over 500 years old. It only surfaces at times of national significance.”
His tale become more unbelieavable a few weeks later when I actually saw Hoan Kiem Lake. It is, functionally, a traffic roundabout. Like Xuan Khanh, it looks uninhabitable: luminescent green from pollution, dead fish bobbing against its concrete sides amid rafts of empty plastic jelly cups. There was also the occasional bloated rat, floating on its back in the thick water, limbs outstretched, as if its final thought was, ‘Ah, the serenity.’
I hmphed. If there was any enormous turtle, let alone a 500-year-old one, surviving in that polluted lake, it really would be magical.
Something happens to a species when we’ve almost destroyed it. We find extinction, or near extinction, in the words of climate activist Harriet Riley, “weirdly romantic.” An unlovably ugly turtle that was once “just protein” now shows up, god-adjacent, in a headline like, “Blood brother of Hanoi's revered turtle god found on city outskirts.” And this is why Riley questions the word we’ve coined for the last individual of a species: an endling.
“It’s a fantastical word, like something out of a fairytale,” shewrites. “‘An endling lives deep in a dark forest beneath distant mountains, and can only been seen at midnight once every hundred years.’”
For the next year, I passed this purported turtle habitat every day on my way to work in Hanoi. I never saw the alleged turtle. I never even saw anyone looking for the turtle. Someone told me they knew someone who had seen it once, but that they suspected it was actually a fake, planted to generate support for a Communist Party Congress occurring at the time.
And then, in 2010, the 1,000-year anniversary of the founding of Hanoi, I was biking past Hoan Kiem Lake, when I saw a crowd of people gathered at its edge, pointing their phones at ripples in the lake’s slimy Saran-wrap surface. There it was, a snorkeled snout straining out of the water. It was the goddamn turtle, or rather, the Turtle God. Every time it surfaced, the crowd cheered. The woman next to me said “Lucky!” over and over again. She was beaming.
A Swinhoe’s softshell turtle was, miraculously, living in this polluted lake, just like the legend predicted. And not just any turtle, but a fourth Swinhoe’s softshell turtle. It had no way of getting out, nowhere to nest, and no friends, leaving it doomed to die alone. It probably did not feel lucky.
“Moving it out of Hoan Kiem was never an option because of its cultural significance,” McCormack said. “And we could never have introduced a new animal to the lake [to breed] because the pollution would have killed it quite quickly from toxic shock, basically.”
The turtle improbably lived six more years in Hoan Kiem Lake. It was probably just over 100 years old, McCormack said, when its lifeless body floated to the lake’s surface in 2016. Not old enough to have co-existed with Emperor Le Thai To, but not really that ridiculously far from it.
“The Hoan Kiem turtle watched the skyline build up around it from bicycles and cyclos to motorbikes to cars and buses and flashing lights from the restaurants all around,” McCormack said. “But it wasn’t going to live forever… It was a sacred animal, but at the end of the day, it was still an animal.”
The semi-mythological status of the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake couldn’t save it from mortality, but it might help the one they’ve just found in Xuan Khanh. McCormack says the cultural significance of the species ensures its greater support from the Vietnamese authorities, relative to other endangered animals. But despite its mythical beginning, the Swinhoe’s softshell turtle is still staring down a very real end.
Extinction doesn’t reside elsewhere. It’s not mythology; just ecology, the most mundane thing in the world. We sometimes reserve it only for the fantasy of pristine wilderness, when it might be a bus ride away.
I told McCormack about how I saw the turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake that time. I told him how it was like seeing the Loch Ness Monster. How magical! And on Hanoi’s 1,000-year anniversary!
“You could have seen the Hoan Kiem turtle whenever you wanted,” he said. “You just had to sit and wait. I saw it practically every time I was at the lake. It would come to the edge, tilt its head and look me right in the eye.”
We were speaking on the phone, but I felt like McCormack was looking me in the eye, too.
Right, I said. It was always there. You just had to pay attention to where you were.