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Vietnam mourns sacred turtle Cu Rua

The death of a popular turtle - celebrated as a symbol of Vietnam's struggle for independence - has led to a national outpouring of grief. The revered reptile is thought to have been about 120 years old.

News of the demise of Cu Rua - a critically endangered swinhoe softshell turtle whose names means "Great Grandfather" - led to expressions of grief on Wednesday, and the burning of incense across Vietnam.

The animal was believed to have a link with the mythic "genius" turtle, which bestowed a magical sword on the 15th century emperor Le Loi that helped him vanquish Chinese invaders. Cu Rua, which lived in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake, was said to be the present-day custodian of the weapon.

Only three other members of the species - better known as the Yangtze giant softshell - are known to be alive, another one in Vietnam and two in a Chinese zoo. It is believed that the turtle variety was brought to the lake centuries ago.

Holy status precluded breeding

Cu Rua weighed some 200 kilograms (440 pounds) and was thought to be aged between 80 and 120 years old. The body, fished from the lake after being discovered on Tuesday evening, is being kept in a temple on an island in the lake and is to be preserved at the Vietnam National Museum.

Despite the meaning of its name, Cu Rua was actually female. Its cultural significance, being considered almost sacred to many Vietnamese, meant it was never possible to include Cu Rua in a breeding program to help conserve the species.

Tim McCormack, from the Asian Turtle Program, told the AFP news agency that Yangtze giant softshell were "possibly the rarest species on the planet and definitely the rarest turtle species.

"It's a great blow," said McCormack. "It was clearly an ancient animal, I would say easily over 100 years old, and so its death does not come as any real great surprise," he said.

'Bad news for many'

The death was widely mourned on Vietnamese-language blogs and social media, with some warning that it was a bad omen for changes in the ruling Communist Party, which is set to begin a five-yearly congress on Thursday.

"I feel empty. My children, grandchildren will only know the turtle from legend," online commentator Duong Nguyen wrote. "This is bad news for many people in Hanoi," said the Thanh Nien newspaper.

Sightings of Cu Rua were regarded as an omen of good luck in recent decades, but the turtle has surfaced more regularly in recent years, leading to fears about its health.

A public outcry about pollution in the lake, and the danger it posed to Cu Rua's health, prompted officials to clean up the stretch of water. The animal was also believed to have been threatened by the arrival of new, smaller non-native species.

rc/bw (AFP, dpa)