Softshell Turtle Conservation Breeding Success in Vietnam

Posted: 8 February 2021
By: Prof Dr Thomas Ziegler, Kölner Zoo Aquarium Curator and Coordinator of Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Projects Vietnam and Laos

In the WAZA News Magazine 01 2020, Cologne Zoo and its Vietnamese cooperation partners reported about their search of the spotted softshell turtle (Pelodiscus variegatus) in Vietnam.

The turtle species was only recently scientifically named in 2019 by the international expert team. WWF reported the discovery in its WWF Mekong Report as one of its cover stories. Facing the global turtle extinction crisis, at the time of naming the new species, no one knew whether this species was still persisting in the wild or already extirpated.

An adult spotted softshell turtle. © Thomas Ziegler

There is already the depressing example of the Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei), with only less than a handful of individuals known to be still alive, making even conservation breeding attempts hard and this largest softshell turtle the rarest of rare.

With support from the Cologne Zoo in Germany, the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources (IEBR) in Vietnam, and the European Union of Aquarium Curators (EUAC) the German-Vietnamese team thus made its way to search for the spotted softshell in Vietnam.

Both at markets and in lowland freshwater habitats in central Vietnam, some individuals were found, which matched the newly discovered species’ external appearance. Most luckily, a few of them subsequently revealed, after molecular analyses, to be conspecific with the recently discovered species.

For the build-up of a conservation breeding programme, a new breeding facility was built together with the Cologne Zoo team in IEBR’s Me Linh Station for Biodiversity in northern Vietnam. There and at another, separate facility in northern Vietnam, it was hoped that the species could reproduce and juveniles would be released in protected areas to replenish the diminished wild population.

Cologne Zoo’s Vietnam project coordinator, Prof Thomas Ziegler, inserts the first genetically identified spotted softshell turtle in the conservation breeding facility at the Melinh Station for Biodiversity on 7 November 2019. © Cuong T. Pham

First breeding success under human care

The programme has recently had success with the very first hatching of spotted softshell turtles in human care. The successful hatching last year is due to Cologne Zoo and IEBR staff’s commitment and collaboration –– a massive success in building up a conservation breeding for this threatened species. Offspring is now available for being distributed among other stations /institutions interested in extending the conservation breeding network and replenishing the wild population in protected areas.

A spotted softshell hatchling. © Cuong The Pham


It shows that zoos working with their partners can play a major role in species conservation. It is important to acknowledge that we do not have time to waste, we need only look to the example of the formerly more widely distributed Yangtze giant softshell turtle, which is now facing extinction.

Thus, this is also another successful example of the One Plan Approach to species conservation, which is supported by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and aims to develop integrative strategies to combine in situ and ex situ measures with groups of experts for the purpose of species conservation.

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) is the global alliance of regional associations, national federations, zoos and aquariums, dedicated to the care and conservation of animals and their habitats around the world.

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