Turtle Ninjas to the Rescue!

One of Vietnam's four sacred animals, the golden tortoise is displayed at Ngoc Son Temple in Hoan Kiem Lake.

If your sacred animal was a turtle, would you try to protect it or would you poach it and sell it for Chinese medicine?  Guess which happens here.

Except in the Turtle Conservation Center at Cúc Phương National Park in Ninh Binh.  I was there three weeks ago, expecting to fall in love with the natural beauty of the park and hike 16 kilometres to a Mường village, where my travel companion and I would stay overnight before heading back the next morning.  The park was lovely; we breathed fresh air for 24 hours and slept in a quiet place for nearly 10.  The primate conservation center was interesting enough; monkeys are always charming.  But the Turtle Conservation Center was wonderland.

These giant Asian pond turtles were rescued from poachers who intended to sell them for soup in China. They're smiling--definitely happy to be swimming in a pond instead of a pot.

We tagged along on a tour meant for a group of schoolchildren.  The guide was a German zoologist, Sarah, who had begun working in the park while finishing her degree in zoology.  She was passionate, articulate and knew so damn much about turtles.  The whole center is geared toward education; it has beautifully organized signs explaining how and why turtles are poached, what is being done to stop it and how turtles that were captured are rehabilitated and set free again.

The center incubates eggs of endangered turtles but finds it challenging because the electricity cuts out frequently.  In the summer, if the air conditioning is not working, the eggs can get too hot.  In the winter, they can get too cold.  If I remember correctly, the national park pays the Turtle Conservation Center’s electricity bills every few months but doesn’t offer regular help with utilities, etc.

American invaders: these turtles are Red-eared sliders, named for the red stripe along their ears (and, I presume, those tiny hamburgers served at sports bars in the US).  They are a North American species sold as pets throughout the world, including in Vietnam.  When they are sold, they are small.  Naturally, they grow and people decide that the turtles are too big for the tanks so, thinking they are doing the turtle a favor by liberating it, they set them free in lakes and woods nearby.  These turtles can survive anywhere and are invasive so they push the native wildlife out.

The center rehabilitates turtles they have rescued from smugglers before setting them free again.  Turtles have a reputation for being slow but they fill an important role in Vietnam’s ecosystem.  Hopefully, by educating schoolchildren and visitors like myself, the Turtle Conservation Center will slowly begin to make change within Vietnam.

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