Vietnam mourns death of sacred giant turtle

The turtle occupied a mythological role in Vietnam. In the past, it surfaced only rarely and sightings were deemed auspicious. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

HANOI • A sacred giant turtle venerated as a symbol of Vietnam's struggle for independence has died, the state media said, prompting an outpouring of grief and fears that the death bodes ill for an upcoming communist leadership handover.

The reptile, a critically endangered Swinhoe's softshell turtle which lived in Hoan Kiem Lake in central Hanoi, occupied a key mythological role in Vietnam.

In the past, the turtle generally surfaced only rarely, with its sightings deemed auspicious.

Some scientists believe it was one of only four turtles - better known as Yangtze giant softshell turtles - in existence. Two are in China and the other lives in a different lake in Hanoi.

Affectionately dubbed Cu Rua or great-grandfather turtle, it was found floating lifeless in the lake late on Tuesday by passers-by, said the Thanh Nien newspaper.

The turtle, which weighed about 200kg, was said to be between 80 and 100 years old. The authorities said the animal had died of old age and because of bad weather. Its demise was widely mourned on Vietnamese-language blogs and social media, with many warning that it was a bad omen for upcoming changes in the ruling Communist Party, which begins its five-yearly congress today.

Vietnam's rulers will choose a new party leader, president and prime minister at the congress.

In a story taught to all Vietnamese schoolchildren, Hoan Kiem Lake turtles are avatars of the Golden Turtle God, or Kim Qui.

It is said that in the 15th century, the deity gave Emperor Le Loi a magical sword to expel Chinese invaders. After his victory, the emperor returned the weapon to Kim Qui, which sank back into the lake with the blade clutched in his beak.

Hoan Kiem literally means "lake of the returning sword". The Tortoise Tower pagoda on a small island in the lake commemorates the legend.

The carcass of the turtle will be preserved at the Vietnam National Museum of Nature, Vietnam News Agency reported.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2016, with the headline 'Vietnam mourns death of sacred giant turtle'. Print Edition | Subscribe