RAFETUS: The Curve of Extinction

by Peter C. H. Pritchard

In this, Pritchard’s eleventh book, he tells the incredible story of the world’s rarest turtle, Rafetus swinhoei, a true giant of the chelonian world. This freshwater Loch Ness Monster, is represented by a single mystical giant living in Lake Hoan Kiem in downtown Hanoi, a juvenile in Dong Mo, perhaps a few specimens living in the shadows of deep lakes in nature, and a large adult pair who lived alone as zoo specimens for more than fifty years, separated by thousands of miles. By a miraculous feat of politics, ingenuity, and human labor, these two individuals were brought together for the purpose of saving the species. In RAFETUS: The Curve of Extinction, Dr. Pritchard presents a story of looming loss, but also of hope..

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 “Tre con nha di tam o ho Con giai ma bat de an thit!” cried Li Binh to her children, who were splashing in the edges of the big wetlands lake near their little house in Phu Tho Province, in northern Vietnam.  “Come back here, or the Con giai will get you!”  Everyone had heard of the Con giai, a turtle almost as big as the little oval boats that the fishermen used in the lake, and so rare that only a few old men in the village had ever seen one.  In the last few days, to everyone’s amazement and concern, something that looked like a gigantic turtle had been spotted several times by fishermen and by children paddling their tiny boats across the lake to go to school. 

Emotions ran high in the village.  Some said that the Con giai was a supernatural creature that should not be disturbed in case ill luck should visit the community.  Others thought of it as something well worth catching.  After all, if the little ba ba softshell turtles that they caught from time to time were edible and sold for good money, a gigantic softshell might make them rich, at least for a while.

 After days of argument, the fishermen won out.  But catching the monster would not be easy.  The Con giai was said to have such a long neck, and such a powerful bite, that one could lose a hand or a foot if not careful.

Next morning, they waded and poked in the lake for hours, until finally Nguyen himself yelled “Con giai!”  The others quickly joined him, and when they finally saw the size of the monster – bigger than any two of them together – they became very excited, talking fast and stupidly, guessing the weight of the turtle – 100 kilos, 200 kilos, 129 kilos? – and started already, in their minds, spending the big payoff they knew they would earn. 

Finally, Trang Noc had an idea.  He went ashore, and came back after a while with a length of strong rope and leading a buffalo – a strange, white and pink albino buffalo.   Trang tied the rope around the horns of the buffalo, and then told his colleagues to tie the other end of the rope through the hole in the turtle’s shell flap.  This took a while, but finally they managed to force the turtle on to its back by twisting the iron hook, which they thought should make it easier to drag.  When everything was ready, Trang went back to the buffalo, and urged it to walk away from the water.   With muscles bulging, the buffalo walked slowly but with irresistible force.  The rope tightened, the turtle started to budge, and at the buffalo’s pace it slid slowly over the mud on its back, its limbs waving.  Once the turtle was on high ground, the whole community came to look at it.  The old men started to tell stories about giant softshells of past times, with themselves usually playing the role of the heroic captor.

Only Chuong Troc, a thoughtful young man of twenty-one, had an urgent, sad thought.  If no-one had seen a Con giai for so many years, he reflected, perhaps this was the last one in the world.  Most of Vietnam except the high mountains was now cultivated, and there weren’t many wetlands left where such a big, valuable animal could hide.  But the others laughed at him, and after everyone had seen it from every angle, poked it, tried to sit on it, or (almost) been bitten by it, the fishermen hauled it off to its fate.



Peter C. H. Pritchard was born in England in 1943, and was raised in Northern Ireland.  He relocated to Florida in 1965.  He has a B.A. (with Honours) and M.A. in Chemistry and Biochemistry from Oxford University, and a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Florida, where he studied sea turtle biology with Dr. Archie Carr.  Since 1998 he has been Director of the Chelonian Research Institute in Oviedo, Florida. Pritchard is best known as an authority on the biology and conservation of turtles and tortoises.  Both before and after receiving his doctorate in 1969, he has undertaken extensive field work with turtles in all continents and many remote islands, and he has established a permanent field station for turtle conservation in northwestern Guyana.  Three species of turtle are named after him — a snake-necked turtle from New Guinea, a pond turtle from northern Burma, and a giant fossil sideneck turtle from Colombia. He has been recognized as a “Champion of the Wild” by the Discovery Television Channel, and as a “Hero of the Planet” by TIME Magazine.  In 2001, he was declared “Floridian of the Year” by the Orlando Sentinel newspaper.



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