As far as we know there are fewer than half a dozen Yangtze giant soft-shelled turtles left in the world and only one is female.
The Yangtze giants (Rafetus swinhoei) are hard to overlook, since they get to be more than a yard long and can weigh a couple of hundred pounds. That means they've been easy to hunt -- and perfect for feeding a crowd.
When it was realized how endangered they were, a search was launched for survivors. A male was in the zoo in Suzhou, China. He's thought to be 100 years old. Two more males were found in Vietnam.
When keepers at the zoo in Changsha, China, got the mailing about the turtles, they said they had a turtle who looked a lot like the one in the picture.... She was thought to be 80 years old. The Changsha turtle, now named China Girl, is indeed a Yangtze giant soft-shell, and was shipped to Suzhou to meet the male there. Neither had seen another turtle of the opposite sex in decades.
China Girl and her new friend knew exactly what to do, and there was much rejoicing when China Girl laid eggs. (I am trying to tell this story tastefully, and avoid the “Ha ha, sexy oldsters!” tone found in much of the coverage. So please keep in mind that these turtles appear to be longer-lived than we are, and for us to snigger about them might be like nine-year-olds groaning and pretending to vomit when they see college students holding hands.)
Though many of the eggs were fertile, not one hatched. Turtle experts blamed years of a low-calcium diet. China Girl had been fed beef and pork. A more suitable and calcium-rich diet would be fish and crayfish. Xie Yan, who runs the Wildlife Conservation Society's China program, says China Girl's diet has already been changed. “Next time will be better.” Lie Jinde, director of the organization that manages the Suzhou Zoo, says “Wait until next year. We ought to succeed.”
At Suzhou, the turtles are protected. There's a guard, a surveillance camera, and bullet-proof glass. (Weirdly, there are people who would commit serious crimes in order to own the last female Yangtze giant soft-shelled turtle in the world. Some of them would try to breed her in the same way as the zoo, some would keep her as a trophy, and probably a few of them would make a point of eating the hardest to-get, most expensive, most selfish, and most evil turtle soup in the world.) So those things are needed.
And of course there's the new regimen. I vigorously support the new turtle diet!
But I would also support making the turtles' lives better in other ways. A turtle can get bored.
Here's the story of Pigface (from Becoming a Tiger):
An unusual example of play in an adult comes from Pigface, a Nile soft-shelled turtle who arrived at the National Zoo in 1940. Six inches long, he was not really pig-faced, but he had the pointy nose and wide decurved mouth appropriate to his species. By the 1980s, Pigface was a yard long, and violently bored. Once a week he received a nutritious dead rat, and twice a week a dozen live goldfish. The goldfish were the highlight of the week, and he pursued them “with speed and agility,” so zealously that until he caught them all he literally stopped only to breathe. This filled 20 exciting minutes a week.
In the 1980s keepers noticed that Pigface had begun to bite his front legs and rake his neck with his front claws, hurting himself badly. Suddenly grasping that he might be bored, they gave Pigface toys—basketballs and a floating hoop. This reduced Pigface’s self-mutilation, and he spent hours nosing and biting at the basketballs, pushing them across the water. As for the hoop, he could not only nose it, bite at it, and push it, but also chew it, shake it, pull it, kick it, and swim back and forth through it. Best of all he liked the hose the keepers used when they refilled the tank, enjoying the sensation of the water streaming over his head at exactly the right angle, and playing tug-of-war with the keeper on cleaning day by grabbing the hose and swimming backward with it, pulling it into the tank. (There is no reason to suspect that Pigface was hoping to pull his keeper into the tank, steal his keys, and make a getaway.)
Nile soft-shelled turtles (Trionyx triunguis) are closely related to Yangtze giant soft-shelled turtles. I suspect that what's good for Pigface might be good for China Girl.
Do those safe, well-fed turtles in Suzhou get to chase goldfish? Could China Girl maybe have a hoop? A hoop and a ball? A hoop and a ball and a chance to fight with a hose?
Do happier turtles breed better? It's worth a try.