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Giant turtle sightings set Vietnam capital abuzz

Ceramic turtle on display at Hanoi National University  
April 13, 1998
Web posted at: 1:56 p.m. EDT (1756 GMT)

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) -- The Vietnamese capital of Hanoi is buzzing with excitement following reported sightings of rare giant turtles in a downtown lake where thousands of pedestrians pass daily. And amateur video footage purportedly of the turtles, long believed to be nothing more than myth and legend, now has skeptics wondering whether the giant beasts really do exist.

For years, people have reported sighting three giant turtles in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake. The latest sighting, and perhaps one of the most credible, came on March 24, when passersby caught a glimpse of the turtles as they surfaced to take in the spring air.

Rare giant turtles reportedly spotted in a downtown Hanoi, Vietnam lake
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An amateur cameraman caught the creatures' appearance on video, which subsequently aired on Vietnamese television. The station also claimed the turtles made a second appearance on April 5. Researchers who have been trying to get a glimpse of the turtles believe they could be the only ones of their kind in the world.

Big turtle stories date back 5 centuries

Stories about the mysterious creatures have been circulating for about 500 years, starting with the legend of King Le Loi and the giant turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake. According to legend, the gods gave Le Loi a magic sword, which helped him battle the Chinese invaders.

Having freed Vietnam, the king and his courtiers were boating on the lake when a giant turtle arose, took the magic sword, then plunged to the depths and returned the blade to its divine owners. Since that time the lake's name has been "Ho Hoan Kiem," which means "Lake of the Returned Sword."

The story is retold in thousands of schoolbooks, and in popular performances at Hanoi's water-puppet theaters.

A Vietnamese television station broadcast this amateur recording of an alleged giant turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake  

Mythology, science mix in turtle pursuit

Mythology and science mix in the work of Hanoi National University's Professor Ha Dinh Duc, the world's foremost expert on the turtles of the Returned Sword Lake.

"The Hoan Kiem turtle is the world's biggest fresh water turtle. It can measure 2 meters (6 1/2 feet) long and can weigh as much as 200 kilograms," said Professor Ha Dinh Duc of Hanoi National University.

Professor Duc has been studying the turtles for the past decade, sometimes in conjunction with international reptile specialists. Some biologists feel these turtles could be the same as a rare species found near Shanghai, China, but Professor Duc disagrees.

"I've compared these with other fresh-water turtles elsewhere in the world and I see real differences. I hope further studies will show this is a new species," he said.

Hoan Kiem turtle could be new species

A Hoan Kiem turtle, found and preserved 30 years ago, is now displayed at a small temple on an island in the lake. The plaque tells visitors it is thought to be more than 500 years old -- old enough, in fact, to be the turtle of the legend.

A comparison of the preserved turtle with images of the Shanghai species shows clear differences in coloration and head shape, supporting Dr. Duc's thesis that this could be a new species. Much remains unknown about these ancient monsters living in the center of downtown Hanoi -- their number, reproductive ability, origins, and especially, whether or not they're unique to the Lake of the Returned Sword.

"If we have cooperation from international experts and they determine this is a new species, it will be a significant contribution to world biological diversity. And since the turtles are right here in the middle of urban Hanoi, many people can easily come to see them," Professor Duc said.

Meanwhile, plans are afoot to clear the lake of pollution that could potentially harm the creatures, and the construction of an artificial beach has been proposed to facilitate breeding.

Copyright 1998   The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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