Dr. Gerald Kuchling recently sent in this update from the Suzhou Zoo in China, where he has returned to spearhead another breeding attempt for the Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei):
A quick update from China: I and Guundie (note: Dr. Kuchling’s wife), Dr. Lu Shunqing (Wildlife Conservation Society) and Emily King (TSA) all arrived in Suzhou on 18 April. The female Rafetus became active for the first time this year also on 18 April 2010, the day we all arrived in Suzhou. The male had showed some activity since 19 March.
We had a work plan meeting at Suzhou Zoo on Monday 19 April 2010 attended by myself, Emily, Lu, from Suzhou Zoo Dir. Chen Daqing, Dr Gu Wenhua, and Dimin and Liu Nonglin of the China Zoo Association. Dir Yan from Changsha Zoo arrived during the dinner after the meeting. The following main points were discussed and agreed upon:
• Most big fish have been removed from both ponds since summer last year. However, some (much fewer) remain and removal will continue
• The turtles’ diet will be further improved this season, with more fish offered and meat without bones no longer offered. One vitamin and three calcium tablets (female) will be included with every feeding. The diet will be mainly whole fish, frogs, quail, chicken heads and wings, crayfish, shrimps, snails. Some lotus roots and carrots will also be offered.
• Attempts will be made to leave the male and female together for longer periods. The gate will be opened ASAP after the meeting and they are now supposed to remain together for at least 3 weeks. After each nesting the gate will be immediately opened (if they were separated).
• As long as the big pond does not have a glass wall surrounding it to prevent litter and food being thrown in by visitors, the turtles will remain in the small pond. Apart from the glass wall the big pond is completed, but the sand on the beach area needs to be built higher up and rainwater down spouts from an adjacent roof need to be diverted away from the sand beach. Once the glass wall is completed, all gates will be opened to let both turtles roam through the whole area (both ponds). This will reduce any need to separate them (e.g. scarring of the skin of the female due to bites from the male).
• When last year’s eggs were removed from the beach on 16 November 2009 (some were removed to incubators, while some were left in the nesting beach), fungus covered the shell of many and plant roots had grown around some. The sand on the beach has been turned over to expose it to sunlight and most plants surrounding the sand will be removed. An additional 20cm of new sand will be added.
• Egg management will be largely the same as last year, but fewer eggs will be incubated in hatchrite in which they seem to dry out more than other media (vermiculite and sand).
Following the meeting on Monday, the gate between male and female was opened yesterday 20 April. It was raining and rain is forecast to continue for some time. The male swam into the female compartment and we see both turtles surfacing occasionally. Today on 21 April Emily observed some mating action. It is still relatively cool here and the turtles do not yet get food and do not seem to be hungry yet. My guess is at present that all breeding actions will be delayed this year probably by at least a week, including the first nesting. Last year the female nested first on 31 May, the year before on 06 June. This year it may again be around 06 June rather than earlier.