China: Scientists Test New Way of Saving Giant Turtle Species

Scientists, researchers and veterinarians at the Suzhou Zoo near Shanghai, China are paving the way for one of the most remarkable trials yet — they are attempting to save the Yangtze giant softshell turtle from extinction. They are hoping to save the rare turtle species by turning to artificial insemination. One of the groups heading this project is led by the Turtle Survival Alliance, a nonprofit conservation organization. They aren’t hoping for much — but they are hoping for a miracle. Even just the possibility of seeing one hatchling will give them hope for the turtle species’ recovery.

The largest freshwater turtle in the world faces imminent extinction

The Yangtze giant softshell turtle once thrived in the Yangtze and Red Rivers, which cumulatively course through southwest, eastern and central China. By the late 1990s, however, its population was drastically reduced due to pollution, hunting and dam development. Today, only four known specimens of this great turtle species remain, one of which is an 85-year-old female who lives in the Suzhou Zoo. To this date, she has laid multiple clutches of eggs (after mating with a 100-year-old male), all of which unfortunately turned out to be unfertilized.

She was discovered in 2007, after specialists from China’s Wildlife Conservation Society branch sought out large turtle species from every zoo in the country. They finally spotted the crucial female turtle in one of the pictures supplied by the Changsha Zoo in Hunan. It turns out that she had been living there since 1949, after the Chinese Revolution ended.

Experimenting with reproductive physiology on turtle species

For six years, the female specimen mated with a fellow turtle at the Suzhou Zoo, but not a single egg was fertile. On May 6, Dr. Kuchling (a project leader of the Turtle Survival Alliance) and Dr. Lu (of the WCS), decided to take further action.

The specialists found out that the male turtle’s reproductive organ had been severely injured after a fight with another male turtle years ago. Sperm was extracted using electrical stimuli, and the team discovered that, while their mobility levels were low, they were still viable. Thus, the plan for artificial insemination proceeded.

Guesswork likely the only way to save turtle species

With no other case studies to model after, the team devised their own strategy. They looked at the female’s cloaca with a fiber-optic endoscope, and located the chamber leading to her oviducts, where the semen was deposited. The experiment may be a long shot, but we’ll have to wait till around late June to see if it was successful.

The two other (male) Yangtze giant softshell turtles are in Vietnam, with one in Hoan Kiem Lake, in Hanoi. There is almost no way, however, for non-Vietnamese to have “access” to these turtles. Other sightings of the turtle species have been reported in a dam reservoir on the Red River, but imminent reach to these turtles seems unlikely.