World’s Rarest Turtle Rafetus Swinhoei on floating grass in Dong Mo Lake

HA NOI, Viet Nam – Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, Scientifically Rafetus swinhoei, the world’s rarest turtle has been captured during aerial surveys on Dong Mo Lake nearly 30 miles west of Ha Noi.

During aerial surveys, a series of drone images were taken by researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) of Rafetus swinhoei is the world’s most endangered turtle, listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

There are only three known individuals remaining of this giant freshwater turtle, which can weigh over 200 pounds.

The images show a large round shape just under the surface of Dong Mo Lake. According to the drone operator, Lonnie McCaskill an Animal Curator at WCS’s Prospect Park Zoo, the team had been taking a break from flying all morning when they saw a bubble trail on top of the water. They redeployed the drone and quickly spotted the submerged object. McCaskill was able to hover over it for approximately five minutes before it eventually dove out of sight.

“It certainly has the shape of a Rafetus, and I can’t explain anything else in the lake or in nature that has that particular shape. One of the local turtle teams from the area is a retired turtle hunter and said it’s a Rafetus. This was exciting for me personally to be a part of the team working to learn more to conserve this highly endangered species,” said McCaskill.

Andrew Walde, Chief Operating Officer for the Turtle Survival Alliance, one of the partners that has been involved in the Rafetus project for years said, “The use of drones to help us cover more area, particularly for such a large and rare species, is the next logical step in improving the survey methodologies.  In time, we will refine drone use for not just Rafetus, but other hard-to-observe species.”

WCS and partners have been working in this region since 2019 to survey the Critically Endangered turtles. In October 2020, WCS cooperated with the Ha Noi Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and Asian Turtle Program (ATP) of Indo-Myanmar Conservation (IMC) capturing and confirming a female turtle on Dong Mo using an ultrasound scan. Authorities believe there is at least one more turtle in Dong Mo and another in nearby Xuan Khanh Lake.

Conservationists hope to capture and determine the sex of the other turtles in both Dong Mo and Xuan Khanh Lakes. Ultimately, conservationists aim to ensure at least one male and female are given a chance to breed to ensure this species can return from the brink of extinction.