SON TAY, Vietnam – A rare East Asian turtle, one of just four believed left in the world, was swept away by a flood, taken hostage by an enterprising fisherman and nearly ended up in a soup pot.
Instead, the 150-pound animal returned to its lake Wednesday and conservationists celebrated their deal with the fisherman — the turtle's freedom in exchange for about $200 and two new fishing nets.
Douglas Hendrie and other conservationists had been trying to find the turtle for two weeks after floods washed the animal out of Dong Mo Lake near Hanoi.
"Thank god it's over," said Hendrie, director of the Asian Turtle Program at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo who also works with the conservation group, Education for Nature Vietnam. "We're happy that the turtle is back in the lake."
Only three other members of the rafetus swinhoei species, also known as Swinhoe's soft-shelled turtle or the Yangtze soft-shelled turtle, are known to exist.
Two are in Chinese zoos and another lives in Ho Hoan Kiem, a lake in downtown Hanoi named for its association with a legendary turtle.
Both Vietnamese turtles are male. An attempt earlier this year to mate the Chinese male, 100, with the sole surviving female, 80, was deemed unsuccessful when the resulting eggs failed to hatch.
According to legend, a magic turtle snatched a sword from the Vietnamese King Le Loi as he boated on the lake and returned it to the gods who had lent it to the king to help him defeat Chinese invaders.
The lake has since been called Ho Hoan Kiem, or the Lake of the Returned Sword.
Fisherman Nguyen Van Toan found the turtle early Wednesday and demanded $1,400 in exchange for its release, arguing that a Hanoi restaurant owner had offered him 30 million Vietnamese dong ($4,800) for the animal.
Turtles are considered a delicacy in Vietnam and other Asian countries.
Toan argued with authorities and conservationists for hours, occasionally picking up a stick to threaten the crowd of about 100 onlookers that gathered in his yard to watch the drama. He finally agreed to accept cash and new nets to replace the ones he ruined capturing the turtle.
"It's a small reward for people who realized that it's important to protect one of the most endangered species in the world," said Nguyen Thi Van Anh, a colleague of Hendrie's from Education for Nature.
Toan said he was satisfied with the outcome.
"I'm very happy the turtle is returning to nature," he said.