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Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle

East Asia

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Rafetus Swinhoei

Endangered

The Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle is in danger of becoming extinct for the following reasons:

  • Habitat loss caused by infrastructure development
  • Hunting for local consumption and livelihood purpose
  • Poaching to be sold as pets or used for alternative medicine
  • Pollution caused by factories and cities nearby

The Yangtze giant softshell turtle, also known as the Red River giant softshell turtle, the Shanghai softshell turtle, the speckled softshell turtle, and Swinhoe’s softshell turtle, is an extremely rare species of turtle in the family Trionychidae. The species is endemic to eastern and southern China and northern Vietnam. Only three living individuals are known, one in China (captive) and two in Vietnam (wild), following the deaths of a wild individual in Vietnam in January 2016 and a captive individual in China in 2019, and it is listed as critically endangered in the IUCN Red List. It may be the largest living freshwater turtle in the world. The female of the last breeding pair died at Suzhou Zoo in China in April 2019, making the species functionally extinct unless a wild female is found.

The Yangtze giant softshell turtle is noted for its deep head with a pig-like snout and dorsally placed eyes. This critically endangered species holds the title of being the largest freshwater turtle in the world. Although hard to compare due to the extremely small number of remaining specimens, its average and maximum sizes seem to exceed other large freshwater turtles such as alligator snapping turtles and related giant softshells such as other Rafetus and Pelochelys species. It measures over 100 cm (39 in) in overall length and to 70 cm (28 in) in width, and can easily weigh up to 70–100 kg (150–220 lb). The average size of large turtle specimens (i.e. turtles weighing over 10 kg (22 lb)) that could be collected in the Yangtze River per one study was 25 kg (55 lb), although not all specimens were definitively identified as Rafetus. Its carapace, or shell, can grow larger than 50 cm (20 in), with the largest shell that could be found having measured 86 cm (34 in) in length. However, along the curve carapace lengths of up to 106 cm (42 in) have been reported and it is possible for the largest specimens (largely reported in Vietnam) to have weighed up 220 to 247.5 kg (485 to 546 lb). Its head can measure over 20 cm (7.9 in) in length and 10 cm (3.9 in) in width. The male is generally smaller than the female and has a longer, larger tail.

The Yangtze giant softshell turtle is on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss, hunting for subsistence and local consumption, and the use of the carapace and bones in alternative medicine. Skulls are often kept as trophies.