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UPDATED: 09:44, June 28, 2004
"Hercules Turtle" on the brink of extinction
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The Yuan, a Hercules turtle of Chinese legend and a species of 175 million years in real life, is endangered by over-hunting and deteriorated environment.

The easiest way for modern Chinese to find out how it looks is to go to temples. Given Chinese legend says the animal can move elegantly with a 330-pound granite stone and five beefy men on its back, ancient architects preferred to let them bear the stone steles with inscriptions on temples' history or merits.

Nowadays, however, the species can hardly be seen in real life. Even Wu Weili, director of the Yuan Nature Reserve in Qingtian County of Zhejiang Province, had only had one chance since 1999.

"The 4.18-pound tiny ones had been taken for an ordinary soft-shelled turtle and put for sale at a local market," Wu said.

Compared with ordinary turtles, Wu said, the Yuan has a bigger size and shorter neck. Besides, there are webbed toes on Yuans' limbs and claws on their three inside toes. The biggest difference as Wu pointed out is the protruding mouth of ordinary turtles. "You can barely see the Yuan's mouth protruding," he said.

Yuan used to occupy a vast habitat in China, from the Hainan Island in the south to the Yellow River in the north. Starting from the 1970s, the number of Yuan kept on the decline until the present 200 thinly scattered in the Oujiang River of Zhejiang, Suijiang River of Guangdong and Lancang River in Yunnan.

A survey by the Water and Resources Department of Qingtian County, Zhejiang Province, revealed that in 2000, only 80 were found in the Oujiang River, the previously named "Hometown of Hercules Turtle". Between 1965-1975, intensive hunting by local villagers turned the hometown into a horrible killing ground.

One fishermen admitted the number of Yuan he caught during that period had gone beyond enumeration. The biggest one, he recalled, was as heavy as 93.5 pounds.

Given lots of people then fancied Yuan as a delicacy, fishermen strove to innovate their fishing gear, but in a nasty way. A simple and lethal one was to put many hooks on one rope. If the poor thing was caught by one hook, the harder it struggled, the more hooks it would get. By using this trick, one fishermen admitted his best catch at one night often was five to six.

Such evil wasn't curbed until 1989 when the Yuan was eventually put under state protection as a rare species. What followed however was not peace but a new round of battle against the general public's ignorance and some people's pursuit of economic interests.

July 1997, at Sizhai Village of Qingtian County, a group of kids hit upon a Yuan, about 28.6 pound, climbing onto the sands to spawn. For no reason, they stoned it to death. In August 1996, one week after the nature reserve officers sent back a Yuan they'd rescued from a fisherman to the Oujiang River, the same one was caught again.

To solve the problem, Zhejiang Provincial Government designated some sections of the Oujiang River, about 360 hectares in Qingtian County, as the Yuan Nature Reserve in 2000 so that Yuans could at least find a place to multiply. The Nature Reserve Regulation stipulates that no architecture or human activities be allowed in this area and that water pollution of any kind be strictly forbidden.

According to Wu, Yuan are very picky about their living condition. They need clear and slow-moving water, clean air, sufficient fish and shrimp for food, quiet sands for them to spawn and enough sunshine for their eggs to grow. Although Yuan spawn twice a year, normally in July and September, with 20 to 30 eggs at most at one time, their survival rate is very low because of the attack of floods, otter, livestock and human interference.

Right now, a spawning yard about two hectares has been screened off inside the reserve at a cost of 800,000 yuan (about 96,386 US dollars). In April, another rescuing center and an artificial multiplying base, with a combined land area of 300 square meters, have been put to use in Guangning County of south China's Guangdong Province.

"The problem now", said Wu, "hinges upon the management and protection outside the core protection zone as the ecological environment of different areas are tightly related."

According to China's Wildlife Protection Law, the protection zones for wildlife have been divided into a core protection zone and the buffer areas.

Compared with the core protection zone, buffer areas have never been viewed as off limits for human activity. In the upper reaches of the Oujiang River, several boats are extracting sand. The muddy water caused by the rumbling boats is heading into the lower-reach nature reserve.

Inside the buffer areas, a hot-pot restaurant discharges its waste directly into the Oujiang River. On the restaurant's front-door lawn is scattered campfire ashes, broken beer bottles and plastic bags. About 100 meters away from the nature reserve is a garbage disposal base. Nearby is a construction site for a gasoline station. Considering their damage to the ecological environment, local law enforcement departments have ordered them be demolished.

Meanwhile, in the lower reaches of the reserve, a highway construction project is going on. To minimize the possible damage, project director Ye Qingmin said they've changed their plan not to build a roadbed bridge but a viaduct. Besides, they've offered the reserve 1.5 million yuan (about 180,723 US dollars) to help them strengthen the protection of Hercules turtle.

"Frankly speaking, it's hard for human being to take any artificial means to rescue dying species. The best protection is to leave them alone and to stay away," said Wu.

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