Hoan Kiem Turtle

Giant freshwater turtle of Southeast Asia.

Etymology: Vietnamese (Austroasiatic), "returned sword," after the legend by which the lake got its name.

Scientific name: Rafetus hoankiemensis, given by Ha Dinh Duc.

Physical description: Possibly the world's largest freshwater turtle. Length, 5 feet-6 feet 6 inches. Width, 3 feet. Weight, 440 pounds. Gray, mottled upper shell. Pinkish belly.

Distribution: Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Significant sightings: The turtle's first appearance was around 1428. When King Le Thai To was boating on the lake in celebration of his successful martial exploits against the Chinese, a gigantic tortoise rose from the depths and pulled the king's sword from his hands. Le Thai To re named the lake Hoan Kiem ("returned sword") because he believed that in this way, the blade had been restored to his Dragon protector.

A stuffed specimen of this turtle exists in Ngoc Son Temple on an island in the middle of the lake. An amateur cameraman took a video of three turtles when they surfaced March 24, 1998. Still photos were taken of specimens on the surface in November 1993 and on March 14, 2000, by Ha Dinh Duc.

A 1-inch x 2-inch egg thought to be from one of the turtles was found April 7, 2000; an unsuccessful attempt was made to incubate it.

Present status: The number of individuals remaining in the lake is unknown. Possible explanations:

(1) An outsize specimen of Swinhoe's softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), which grows to more than 300 pounds. The only known captive specimen is in the Shanghai Zoo.

(2) The Asian giant softshell turtle (Pelochelys bibroni) has a carapace nearly 4 feet long and is found elsewhere in Vietnam, China, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea.

(3) A surviving Stupendemys geographicus, the largest fossil freshwater turtle, known from the Early Pliocene 6 million years ago in Venezuela and Brazil. Its carapace was nearly 7 feet in diameter.

Sources: CNN, "Giant Turtle Sightings Set Vietnam Capital Abuzz," April 13, 1998, http://www.cnn.com/EARTH/9804/13/vietnam. turtles.ap/; Karl Shuker, "Turning Turtle?" Fortean Times, no. 113 (August 1998): 18; Viet Nam News, "A Hoan Kieam Turtle Pops Up to Say Hello," March 16, 2000, http:// vietnamnews.vnagency.com.vn/2000-03/15/ Miscellany.htm, accessed in 2001; Craig Heinselman, "Hoan Kiem Turtle: A Tale of the Sword," Crypto 3, no. 3 (May 2000): 15-18, http://www.strangeark.com/crypto/Crypto7.pdf.

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