Image: Phuongcacanh, Wikimedia Commons

While most marine turtle species are endangered, the Yangtze giant softshell turtle is the most endangered of them all — with only three known individuals remaining on the entire planet. 

Two of these turtles live in captivity at the Suzhou Zoo in China and one wild turtle lives in Dong Mo Lake Son Tay in Hanoi, Vietnam. A fourth was reported dead last year, marking a deadly blow for the species as a whole.

The Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) is also known as the Red River giant softshell turtle and in Chinese as the speckled softshell turtle. Their most distinctive characteristics include a short, pig-like snout and dorsally located eyes. They are the largest species of freshwater turtles in the world, measuring up to forty inches in length and weighing easily over 200 pounds.

These turtles are endemic to the Yangtze River and Lake Tai, with the last specimen caught in the wild back in 1998. They feed on a variety of plant matter in addition to crabs, snails, fish, and frogs.

Habitat degradation and hunting have contributed to the critical decline of this species’ population. They are sought after for human consumption in addition to use in alternative medicine. The construction of infrastructure and hydropower dams along the Red River are the two main factors contributing to their habitat loss.

Researchers are striving to breed the couple living in captivity at the Suzhou Zoo but the last few attempts at breeding turtles in captivity have been unsuccessful. At the same time, conservationists search for a fourth wild Yangtze turtle thought to be living in the Yunnan Province.

There is hope for rebuilding the Yangtze giant softshell turtle population but scientists have a long way to go.

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