A giant softshell turtle known as Cu Rua that has been living in Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam, for more than a century is one of the last four members of its critically endangered species, Rafetus swinhoei. The freshwater animal weighs about 200 kilograms and is worshiped as a deity that protects the city, but neither its size nor stature has prevented it from being injured recently by fishermen and an aggressive invasive species.

Cu Rua was finally rescued from the lake this week after several attempts to capture and treat the animal for wounds that were first spotted last year on its neck and legs. (The nasty, infected wounds can be seen on these photos from March 31.) The turtle will be kept in an enclosure on an island in the lake for the next few weeks until it heals.

It took 50 Vietnamese volunteers, soldiers and veterinarians about two hours to net and capture Cu Rua. As many as 1,000 onlookers cheered the operation. The turtle tore through nets during a previous rescue attempt in the beginning of March.

Although it has lived in Hoan Kiem Lake for more than 100 years, the lake is no longer proving to be a safe habitat for the giant turtle. Water levels are low, and the water itself is heavily polluted by industrial runoff. The animal's wounds were likely caused by hooks from illegal fishing and small but bullying red-eared slider turtles (Trachemys scripta elegans), which were probably released into the lake after locals grew tired of keeping them as pets. The aggressive red-ears are listed as one of the 100 worst invasive species by the Invasive Species Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

There are only three other R. swinhoei known to exist in the world: two in China and one in another lake in Hanoi. The species was named one of the 25 most endangered turtles in an IUCN report in February. Cu Rua's gender is not currently known.


Photo: The Hoan Kiem Lake turtle in 2008, by haithanh via Flickr under Creative Commons license