A series of drone images taken by researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and partners may show the world’s most endangered turtle, Swinhoe’s softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei). The images were captured during aerial surveys on Dong Mo Lake some 30 miles west of Ha Noi.

There are only three known individuals remaining of this giant freshwater turtle, which can weigh over 200 pounds.

The images show a large round shape just under the surface of Dong Mo Lake. According to the drone operator, Lonnie McCaskill an Animal Curator at WCS’s Prospect Park Zoo, the team had been taking a break from flying all morning when they saw a bubble trail on top of the water. They redeployed the drone and quickly spotted the submerged object. McCaskill was able to hover over it for approximately five minutes before it eventually dove out of sight.

Said McCaskill: “It certainly has the shape of a Rafetus, and I can’t explain anything else in the lake or in nature that has that particular shape. One of the local turtle team from the area is a retired turtle hunter and said it’s a Rafetus. This was exciting for me personally to be a part of the team working to learn more to conserve this highly endangered species.”

Andrew Walde, Chief Operating Officer for the Turtle Survival Alliance, one of the partners that has been involved in the Rafetus project for years said, “The use of drones to help us cover more area, particularly for such a large and rare species, is the next logical step in improving the survey methodologies.  In time, we will refine drone use for not just Rafetus, but other hard to observe species.”

WCS and partners have been working in this region since 2019 to survey the Critically Endangered turtles. In October 2020, WCS cooperated with the Ha Noi Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and Asian Turtle Program (ATP) of Indo-Myanmar Conservation (IMC) capturing and confirming a female turtle on Dong Mo using an ultrasound scan. Authorities believe there is at least one more turtle in Dong Mo and another in nearby Xuan Khanh Lake.

Conservationists hope to capture and determine the sex of the other turtles in both Dong Mo and Xuan Khanh Lakes. Ultimately, conservationists aim to ensure at least one male and female are given a chance to breed to ensure this species can return from the brink of extinction.

The Viet Nam Government is leading the effort and partnerships to save this species. The partners conducting this work thank the following: Forest Protection Department (FPD), Viet Nam Forest Administration, Fisheries Department, the Biodiversity Conservation Agency (BCA) of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MoNRE), Finance department, Natural Resources and Environment department, Planning and Investment department, Science and Technology, Tourism, Culture and Sport, Ba Vi district People’s Committee, Son Tay town People’s Committee, the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, the Central Institute for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, Viet Nam National University (VNU CRES), and the Ha Noi Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Additional support for this work came from: Alan and Patricia Koval Foundation, Auckland Zoo, Birdlife International, British Chelonia Group (BCG), Browse Poster UK, Central Institute for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, Viet Nam National University (VNU CRES), Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and Cleveland Zoological Society, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), Education for Nature (ENV), Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), IUCN, Island Foundation, Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund (MBZ), Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, Hong Kong (OPCFHK), Panaphil and Uphill Foundations, Turtle Conservation Fund (TCF), Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), George Garretson Wade Charitable Trust, Washington State University, Wildlife Conservation Society Canada (WCS Canada), Zoological Society of London (ZSL), as well as a number of private donors who have supported efforts to save the Rafetus swinhoei.


For further information, please contact:

Ta Van Son, Director

Ha Noi Fisheries Department

Ha Noi Department of Agriculture and Rural Development

Address: Thanh Liet commune, Thanh Tri district, Ha Noi

Tel:  +84 (0) 24 3688 4464     

FAX:  +84 (0) 24 3688 9510

Email: cctshn_sonnptnt@hanoi.gov.vn


Timothy McCormack, Program Director

Asian Turtle Program of Indo-Myanmar Conservation

Address: 1806, CT1 - C14 Bac Ha Building, To Huu Street, Nam Tu Liem District, Ha Noi, Viet Nam

Tel: +84 (0) 24 7302 8389

Tel: +44 (0) 7460 953 121

Email:  info@asianturtleprogram.org


Nguyen Quynh Anh

Communication Officer

WCS Viet Nam

106, D Building, No. 3 Thanh Cong Street, Thanh Cong Ward, Ba Dinh District, Ha Noi, Viet Nam 

Tel: +84 (0) 24 3514 9750

Mobile phone: +84 (0) 964 864 164

Email: anguyen@wcs.org