Last month I made a trip to Suzhou Zoo, Jiangsu province, to meet Susu and Xiangxiang, China’s only remaining Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtles, the largest and rarest freshwater turtle on earth. There is just one other known individual of the species, a wild male in Xuan Khanh Lake, Vietnam, where the animal is considered to have supernatural powers and represent the Golden Turtle God.
My visit was mostly spent with the human who has been responsible for taking care of them for the last decade or so. As the weather was dismal – freezing cold, windy and bucketing rain – Di Min cheerily confirmed that we didn’t stand much of a chance of seeing the creatures in person, since they’d likely be ensconced in the muddy banks of their respective pools. On such days the turtles are usually monitored via a 5-camera CCTV display in an indoor observation room.
Yangtze Giant Softshell turtles once ranged between the Red River and the Yangtze lower floodplains, losing their habitat inevitably to industrial interventions like sand dredging, dam construction and pollution, and subject also to hunting for food and for their bones and shells, used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Individuals held in a handful of Chinese zoos died in the early 21st century (one in Beijing in 2005 and another in Shanghai the following year), leaving only Suzhou’s Susu and Xiangxiang, whose names eventually slipped away. Now known simply as ‘the male’ and ‘the female’, these two are plodding on into middle age (110 and 90 years old) in relative comfort in separate muddy pools not dissimilar to the nearby Lake Tai, one of the last places their wild ancestors were found in China.
Despite years of unsuccessful artificial insemination efforts, leading some conservationists to label them a ‘zombie species’, Di Min is optimistic about Susu and Xiangxiang’s chances of (assisted) breeding. She tells of swishing oversized cooking chopsticks in the water to call them to dinner, and simply can’t conceive of the species ending here. Before we leave, Susu makes a brief surprise appearance, popping up his head by the water’s edge before disappearing back into the grey.
Thanks to Augustina for translating!