There are only three Yangtze giant softshell turtles, a critically endangered species, left in the world.
The Yangtze giant softshell turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in the world. These turtles used to inhabit the Yangtze River and Lake Tai in eastern China. They are also one of the rarest, most endangered species on the planet. Of the three remaining turtles, two live in captivity in China's Suzhou Zoo. One lives in the wild in lake Dong Mo in Vietnam.
In February of last year, a fourth turtle that had lived in captivity died in Vietnam. In critically endangered species, even the loss of just one individual has a huge impact. Now, conservationists are scouring the softshell turtle's known habitats to look for a fourth turtle.
The two turtles in captivity in China are male and female. The male is already quite old, but the female is still young. Though this is a breeding pair, the past four artificial insemination attempts have been unsuccessful. Conservationists are now looking for a younger male turtle that can hopefully supply viable sperm.
The population of Yangtze giant softshell turtles quickly plummeted in the second half of the 20th century. Development projects along the banks of China's Yuan River destroyed the turtles' natural habitat. Clean water and hunting beaches were important to the survival of the turtles. Destruction of habitat is a common cause of endangerment.
Yangtze giant softshell turtles aren't the only turtle species to be on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of endangered species. In fact, most marine turtle species are endangered. Being endangered is becoming more of the rule rather than the exception when it comes to these turtles. Habitat loss, poachers, and climate change have all negatively impacted turtle populations around the world.
With just three known individuals left and no reproductive success in recent years, is there hope for the Yangtze giant softshell turtles? Conservationists have been surveying the Yangtze River, but haven't found one of the elusive turtles yet. However, locals in the area have claimed to have seen living members of this critically endangered species. Conservationists are now hoping that these accounts are true.
While conservationists will always work to save endangered species from extinction, the Yangtze giant softshell turtle is special. This turtle species is a flagship species, which means that its presence holds a particular importance in the ecosystem. It can serve as an indicator of biodiversity health, and it can also call more attention—and therefore funding—to conservation efforts.
Conservationists fear that it may be too late for the Yangtze giant softshell turtle. They say that they could have done more for this critically endangered species a decade ago. However, they aren't quite ready to give up on this species just yet. The conservationists plan on returning to China every year until they find a fourth turtle.
With any luck, a fourth turtle will turn up and give new hope for its critically endangered species. There are a lot of things working against finding a fourth individual, but there's still a chance of triumphing against the odds.
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