HANOI, Vietnam – They're calling him "the lucky royal turtle" — a rare and endangered reptile that was saved from a likely fate in a Chinese soup pot by keen-eyed wildlife officers and a microchip.
Poachers snatched the animal, a species called "Royal Turtle (search)" in Cambodia (search) because its eggs were once fed to kings, from a Cambodian river two months ago and toted it across the Vietnamese border on a motorbike with a stash of other, more common, turtles.
Conservationists said that at 33 pounds, the animal was sure to have fetched a good price when it reached the smuggler's destination: The food markets of China, where turtle meat is a delicacy often made into soup.
A raid on the smuggler's house in southern Vietnam's Tay Ninh province was the turtle's first stroke of good luck. About 30 turtles were confiscated and transported to a wildlife inspection center, where workers noticed there was something different about this one.
"My staff said they had never seen a turtle that big," said Ta Van Dao, head of the forest control bureau in Tay Ninh. "Its head and eyes were also different from the regular turtles."
The Vietnamese wildlife officials consulted an endangered species book, then called Doug Hendrie, an Asian turtle specialist based in Hanoi for the New York-based World Conservation Society. They told him they thought they had a Batagur baska, or Asian river terrapin.
At first, Hendrie thought the wildlife officers must be joking.
"I was very surprised when I heard they had a Batagur baska down there," said Hendrie, who also works for the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. "Initially I said, 'What else do they have? A lion? A zebra?'"
But a photo soon confirmed it was indeed a Batagur baska, a species thought to have disappeared in Cambodia until it was rediscovered in 2001. Conservationists eventually began tagging the animals with tracking devices and monitoring their nests, and King Norodom Sihamoni personally ordered their protection.
That led to the captured turtle's next good fortune. When officials inspected it in Ho Chi Minh City (search), they found a tiny microchip implanted under its wrinkly skin, pinpointing its exact home on the Sre Ambel River in southern Cambodia.
Hendrie said there are only about two to eight females remaining there, making the return of this adult male turtle even more vital. It had been tagged in Cambodia for research two years ago but not seen again until its discovery in Vietnam.
Vietnamese and Cambodians officials worked together to repatriate the turtle. He was shipped back to Cambodia last week and is undergoing health checks before being returned to the wild.
Many Asian turtles are in danger because of the thriving trade in animals in the region, where a species' rarity can add to its value on a menu or as a traditional medicine.
The Batagur baska is found only in parts of India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia, and populations have been sharply declining in recent years.
On one river in western Malaysia, 690 Batagur baska turtles were found in 1999 compared to only 40 last year, Hendrie said.
"Every single turtle is important to the population," he said. "This was the first case where an animal had been transferred back to where it came from in Cambodia. It was a landmark event."