Vietnam is mourning an ancient turtle that had been revered as a symbol of auspiciousness and whose death has shocked the country.
The giant turtle, known as Cu Rua (Great Grandfather), was venerated as a symbol of Vietnam’s independence and there are fears that his death bodes ill for the forthcoming communist leadership handover.
Believed to be one of only four still living, the reptile best known as a Yangtze giant softshell turtle was found floating in the Hanoi lake where he lived. The cause of death is unclear.
The turtle, which weighed about 200kg (440lbs), was said to be 80-100 years old.
The BBC reports:
Some see the death as a bad omen for the ruling Communist Party. Its annual congress begins on Thursday and a change of leadership is expected.
The reptile – known as Cu Rua (great-grandfather) – will now be embalmed.
“Cu” is the Vietnamese word used to refer to old and revered people, giving some indication of the special place he occupied in the hearts of Hanoi’s inhabitants.
And not only Hanoians – people from all over the country also used to come to Hoan Kiem lake in Vietnam’s capital to try to catch a glimpse of him. Some even waited for days.
Social media in Vietnam has been flooded with posts lamenting his death, which came on a gloomy windy and wintry Tuesday afternoon.
Facebook user Nguyen Viet Nam said: “The turtle was a sacred animal for us Hanoians. Such sadness, such regret.”
Some wondered whether the timing of the death was significant. Nguyen Thanh Ha: “Cu Rua has died! Is this a sign? Just when the Congress meets?”
Another Facebook user Dao Trung Thanh said: “So the Hoan Kiem Lake turtle has died. Maybe it is not a sign of bad luck. Maybe it is a sign of renewal and end of slow backwardness.”
Douglas Hendrie, a Hanoi-based wildlife expert, says Cu Rua was one of only four known living specimens of his kind in the world.
“But more than that, the turtle also had a significant historical, cultural and spiritual value for the Vietnamese,” he adds.
Legend has it that the turtle – believed to be more than 100 and the oldest in Vietnam – was the incarnation of a mythical creature living in the lake in the 15th Century.
Local legend has it that Le Loi, a real figure from Vietnamese history who would become emperor of Vietnam, borrowed a magical sword from the Dragon King to fight against Vietnam’s then Chinese oppressors.
After claiming independence for the Viets, he came to the lake and returned the sword to its divine owner via its disciple – a giant turtle which surfaced to take it from his hands before disappearing beneath the jade waters.
The lake duly became known as Hoan Kiem, or the Lake of the Returned Sword.
Scientists are not yet sure what killed Cu Rua – pollution, climate change or simple old age – but his body is being examined by experts. The authorities have already announced that it will be preserved.