This Endangered Turtle is Making a Comeback

A fisherman in northern Cambodia made an unusual catch in the Mekong River late last year: a large softshell turtle with a face that looked more like a frog. Instead of releasing it back into the river, he took it to a restaurant in the town of Kratie, hoping to make some money by selling it to the owner.

The owner of the restaurant did buy the unusual turtle for $75–but he didn’t serve it for dinner. He recognized it as a rare Cantor’s giant softshell turtle, a species once believed to be extinct. The owner’s son took the turtle to the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center.

For the next three months, Bran Sinal, the manager of the center, took care of the turtle, which was a female of breeding age, National Geographic reports. To have lost her, Sinal said, would have been a tragedy.

Last month, Sinal and a group of local officials, residents and Buddhist monks got together on an island in the middle of the Mekong River to send the turtle back to her home.

“This is a special occasion,” Sinai told National Geographic. “It is the first time we have released a broodstock [of this species] back into the wild, so it’s a very good sign.”

It’s also a very good sign that the Cantor’s giant softshell turtle is making a comeback. These freshwater turtles, native to southeast Asia, are also known as frog-face turtles because of their appearance. The turtles were popular targets of local hunters, who believed that eating their meat could cure various illnesses.

In 2003, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified the species as endangered. Because of no sightings, they believed that these turtles had perhaps gone extinct. But four years later, a team from the nonprofit Conservation International discovered a mother Cantor’s giant softshell turtle, according to Mekong Commons.

This inspired both governmental and non-governmental partners to work together to help the species recover. They established a breeding program, and the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center opened in 2011.

Local communities have also been crucial in preserving and protecting these turtles and other wildlife in the area, wildlife advocate Sun Yoeung told Mekong Commons in 2017. A paid team of turtle guardians—many of them former poachers—patrol the area’s beaches, making sure the nests are undisturbed.

Yoeung said that in the years since the mother Cantor’s giant softshell turtle was discovered in 2007, almost 4,000 nests were preserved and over 8,500 hatchlings had been released into the Mekong River.

While this is truly good news, Yoeung warned that these turtles aren’t exactly out of the woods yet. Humans, as well as predators like snakes and lizards, are still a danger for baby turtles. Climate change-fueled droughts and deluges have also impacted the turtle eggs’ ability to hatch.

Despite these hurdles, Yoeung said he’s cautiously optimistic about the survival of the Cantor’s giant softshell turtle. He hopes the local communities’ efforts to save the species will inspire other communities along the Mekong River to do the same.

The Mekong River Basin is one of the world’s most biologically diverse areas. Kudos to all of those working to ensure it stays that way!

7 Fascinating Facts about Cantor’s giant softshell turtles

  1. One of the largest species of turtles in the world, Cantor’s giant softshell turtles can grow to be six feet long, or as the National Geographic puts it, as large as a small sofa. They weigh 220 pounds or more.
  2. Along with their frog-like face, these turtles are different from others because instead of having a hard outer shell, their ribs form protective plating over their backs beneath the skin.
  3. They can live in the wild for over 100 years. They make their home in the region from Bangladesh to the Philippines, and in a 30-mile portion of Cambodia’s Mekong River.
  4. To hide themselves from predators, they bury themselves in the sand, with only their eyes and noses protruding. They spend 95 percent of their long lifetimes either buried like this or floating beneath the water’s surface. They inhale one big breath of air twice each day.
  5. To catch fish or crustaceans, these turtles can strike just as quickly as a snake, “shooting its neck out from under the sand like a chameleon shoots out its tongue,” according to National Geographic.
  6. The turtles make nests on the beach, where they may lay 50 or more eggs. After about 60 days, the eggs hatch, and the baby turtles find their way to the water without their mother’s help. They immediately begin living independently.
  7. According to local folklore, a giant turtle named Romech once lived in the Mekong River. Want to bet a Cantor’s giant softshell turtle inspired this tale?

This May, Care2 is launching a campaign to protect endangered species, like Cantor’s giant softshell turtle. Join us to save these real-life fantastic beasts!

Photo credit: Wildlife Conservation Society


Jennifer H
Jennifer H3 days ago

A happy ending. We need optimism! Thanks for sharing.

Leo C
Leo Custer6 days ago

Thank you for sharing.

Richard B
Richard B6 days ago


joan silaco
joan silaco6 days ago


Naomi D
Naomi Dreyer7 days ago

My little turtle, Timothy, had the run of the house and garden. Some years he would disappear for months!!!

Naomi D
Naomi Dreyer7 days ago

Good news. First I've heard of a soft shelled turtle.

Michael F

Thank You for Sharing This !!!

heather g
heather g8 days ago

All Turtles are attacked and eaten in the sea - so few of them survive. The 'soft shell' doesn't even have any protection from predatorial fish an sharks,,,,

Carole R
Carole R8 days ago

Very good news. I had never heard of a soft shell turtle. Very interesting. May it prosper.