by Peter C.H. Pritchard
Recent news from Hanoi is that the old turtle in Hoan Kiem has a fishhook embedded in its leathery shell. Opinions were split as to whether someone should attempt to remove it, or to let it be. The urgency of the question quickly grew critical; Dr. Lois Lippold, President of the Douc Langur Foundation in San Diego, received a message that the big turtle did not appear to be in good shape. In fact, it might be dying. Photos showed that it had a large but possibly healed scar area on the side of the neck, whereas the right forelimb looked inflamed and had the appearance of a bolt of raw meat.
Meetings were held. Committees were appointed. Decisions were made. Veterinarians offered their services. A “hospital” pond was established on the Pagoda Island in Hoan Kiem lake, where it could at least have clean water and could be accessed by the experts. Throughout the whole enterprise, thousands of Vietnamese citizens ringed the lake, hoping for a glimpse of the turtle. Some said that the turtle weighed over 400 pounds. Others said 250 kg. Either way, it seemed that it might be the biggest known specimen of its species. Internet reports indicated that the turtle was 6 feet long and 4 feet wide, but examination of photos with humans for scale do not back up this estimate.
Meanwhile, a team started to clean up the notoriously polluted lake, which is about a mile long. The Associated Press listed the main pollutants – bricks and concrete, plastic bags and raw sewage, and not to forget large amounts of human urine. The task of making a detectable difference in the water quality is a challenging one, but perhaps it can at least make a contribution, and if those responsible for the daily input of wastewater will cooperate, some improvement in water quality may occur.
Obviously, clean is better than dirty. But what does the turtle need? Certainly, Professor Duc’s effort to remove sharp-edged bottom debris is a move in the right direction, and it might not be a bad idea to remove the red-eared slider turtles, native to Louisiana and Mississippi, that flourish in the lake and that may attack the wounds of the gigantic fellow turtle with which they share living space. When the big turtle is spotted, the carapace is often covered with mud, especially during the cold months, a sign that it spent much time partially or completely buried in the bottom substrate. Does it need that muddy substrate, and the somewhat murky water of the lake? Perhaps converting the lake to one of crystalline clarity is not what is needed.
Last week a small island in the lake was expanded with sandbags to form a platform large enough for the turtle to rest, complete with a little pond. Rescuers were hoping to coax it ashore but, when it did not emerge on its own, dozens of men waded into the water to try to gradually net the creature and drag it to the island. But even with the military involved in the rescue, the turtle managed to slip through the nets and escape.
“I’m really glad to be part of the rescue operation and, hopefully, it will bring luck to my family “said Nguyen Thanh Liem, a retired Army captain who helped pull the net, along with dozens of other onlookers. I wish that he would be immortal to bless our nation.”