Columns

Turtles once again plod way into news 2016.08.17

By RICH FOLEY

Back in 2011, I wrote about a sacred Vietnamese turtle, considered to be the embodiment of a 15th century turtle that loaned a magic sword to soldiers fighting Chinese invaders. Five years ago, the turtle was temporarily removed for medical treatment from the polluted central Hanoi lake it lived in.

The treatment must have worked, at least to a point, as the turtle survived for another five years before dying earlier this year. His death, however, was seen as a bad omen for both Vietnam and the Communist Party. Cu Rua, as the turtle was known, was believed to have died of natural causes at an age of at least many decades. Some believe he was centuries old, but, for his species, he didn’t live long enough.

Cu Rua’s death reduced the world population of Rafetus swinhoei, or Yangtze giant soft shell turtles, to just three. The only known female left is in China, and her male partner is believed to be infertile. The final one is in Vietnam, living in another lake near Hanoi.

 The only hope to avoid extinction would be to breed the Vietnamese turtle with the Chinese female, but there’s two problems: One, the difficulty of getting the two countries to agree, and, two, the fact that the sex of the remaining Hanoi turtle is unknown, probably why it wasn’t bred with the one that just passed. This might be the end for the species. In New York City, however, a hawksbill sea turtle is alive and keeping even the sharks in line.

Lucy the turtle is the undisputed queen of the New York Aquarium. She and several loggerhead turtles not only have the sharks and stingrays cowering in fear, but their keepers as well. One loggerhead named Yellow once pinned the aquarium’s senior keeper to the bottom of the tank until another keeper rescued her. Many other slow-moving keepers have been nipped by the turtles, who seem to want to play.

Yellow is also suspected of being responsible for injuries to a stingray. Lucy, Yellow and other loggerheads named Blue and Red are famous for stealing food from about 50 sharks, whose names include Axl, Mick and Janis. The injured stingray is named Ray Charles.

A new $150 million facility is under construction and plans are also underway on how to keep the sharks, as well as keepers, safe. Plans include smaller pools into which the turtles will be lured with snacks before the sharks are fed in the main tank. Once the new facility is ready, species will be introduced one at a time, allowing each to establish themselves before the next residents arrive. It’s already been decided that those wild and crazy turtles will be last.

Much more docile turtles in Texas required some help when their home was updated. The lake at a park in Bedford, in north Texas, was lined with concrete and the embankments around the lake were made much steeper. Turtles had trouble getting both in and out of the water.

City workers made a ramp out of rocks to ease the path for the turtles. It was so successful that ducks and other animals started using it as well. To handle the traffic, workers built two additional ramps which now seem enough to accommodate all in need.

Meanwhile, back in New York, aquariums aren’t the only public facility having problems dealing with turtles. Each summer, during a mating season that reaches its peak in mid-July, officials at John F. Kennedy International Airport have to deal with diamondback terrapins that make nests and lay eggs in the sandy turf surrounding runways and taxiways.

Crews have to be vigilant in watching for turtles that wander onto active runways. Officials told the Associated Press that while they had no record of arriving or departing airliners actually hitting a turtle, it was not unusual to have delays of several minutes while workers remove them from the tarmac. Last year, 163 turtles found their way onto airport property, a lower amount than usual because of runway construction. Through mid-July this year, almost 400 had already trespassed.

Once removed, captured turtles are measured, tagged and then resettled in a safer habitat. That’s certainly a humane way of handling the problem, and probably a smart one as well. It’s best not to mess with the turtles when their “cousin” Lucy and her gang are so close by and probably itching for a rumble.