Death of a Mythical Giant

Photograph by Gerald Kuchling

Photograph by Gerald Kuchling

The last known female Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), known by her keepers as “Xiangxiang,” has passed away. She died unexpectedly on April 19th at China’s Suzhou Zoo. Her tragic death followed general anesthesia for an artificial insemination procedure and leaves just three turtles of this species confirmed alive. Though she was estimated to be at least 90 years old, the cause of her death is not yet known.

Extinction now looms over the Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle, one of the largest species of freshwater turtle in the world. The team spearheading the Chinese Rafetus conservation program had tried naturally breeding this female for many years with no success. This is a tragic outcome for a team of dedicated conservationists who did everything they could to save the species from extinction.

The loss of this turtle underscores the importance of establishing conservation programs long before only a few individuals remain. Historically, little has been known about the Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle because for many years the validity of the species was not recognized, and its occasional sightings and specimens were attributed to more common and widespread species. Conservationists theorize that hunting and severe pollution led to the species’ rapid decline. By the time they were recognized as a separate species, only a handful of very old animals remained and field studies were no longer possible.

Turtles are among the most endangered vertebrates on the planet, with over half of all species threatened by extinction. The Turtle Conservancy relies on donors like you to help us in the fight to conserve the planet’s remaining turtle and tortoise species. Please join us by becoming a member today.