Vietnam Embalms a Sacred Turtle, Lenin-Style – The New York Times

Cu Rua in its glass case this week at Ngoc Son Temple in Hanoi, Vietnam. Many Vietnamese saw the turtle, which died in 2016, as a symbol of the country’s independence and longevity.CreditCreditLuong Thai Linh/EPA, via Shutterstock

HONG KONG — Vladimir Lenin. Mao Zedong. And now: a giant reptile.

Vietnam has embalmed a turtle that many saw as a symbol of the country’s independence and longevity until its death in 2016, the state-run news media reported.

The move catapults the animal, known as Cu Rua, or Great-Grandfather Turtle, into an elite club of famous figures embalmed and put on display by Communist regimes. That list includes Lenin, Mao, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il of North Korea, and Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s own revolutionary hero.

“The extremely rare giant turtle has been plastinated and lodged in a temple” at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, the capital, where it once lived, the news site VnExpress reported on Tuesday. Plastination, a method of preserving bodies by infusing them with resins, was developed by a German anatomist in the 1970s.

In plastic as in life, Cu Rua carries immense spiritual and cultural significance in Vietnam.

A Vietnamese legend says that in the 15th century, a nationalist hero borrowed a magic sword, used it to drive out occupying Chinese forces and returned it to a turtle that surfaced in Hoan Kiem, the Lake of the Returned Sword. A turtle shrine was built on a small island in the lake in the 1880s, and the “great-grandfather” that died there in 2016 was widely thought to be the earthly embodiment of the ancient legend.

Cu Rua’s death, which occurred during a heated national debate about Vietnam’s perceived political and economic dependence on China, prompted an outpouring of sadness. Some Vietnamese saw it as a bad omen for the country and the ruling Communist Party, which has been in power for decades.

Cu Rua was believed to have died of natural causes. But Hoan Kiem Lake is notoriously polluted, and the turtle was occasionally seen surfacing for oxygen in the years before it died.

Cu Rua underwent plastination, a method of preserving bodies by infusing them with resins.CreditLuong Thai Linh/EPA, via Shutterstock

The death was also a loss for biological history because Cu Rua, who weighed an estimated 360 pounds, had been among the last of the Yangtze giant soft-shell turtles.

The species, known as Rafetus swinhoei, was once common in northern Vietnam’s Red River Delta but was hunted down in the 1970s and 1980s. Cu Rua’s death left just three known specimens — a couple in a zoo in Suzhou, China, and one turtle in Dong Mo Lake, outside Hanoi, whose sex has not been revealed.

The Suzhou turtles have produced no offspring, Tim McCormack, the program director of the Asian Turtle Program, a conservation group based in Hanoi, wrote last April. But he added that a fourth member of the species had been found in Xuan Khanh Lake, outside Hanoi, fueling hopes that wild Rafetus swinhoei could be brought together for captive breeding.

A few months later, Mr. McCormack wrote that the program had potentially found a second turtle of the same species in Dong Mo Lake, but that more investigation was needed to confirm the discovery. He said on Wednesday that a “species recovery” alliance, including Vietnamese officials and international wildlife advocacy groups, was working on a plan to capture known members of the species, determine their sex and possibly breed them.

“Finding the second animal has got people excited in the species again, and we believe it can be saved if we can bring them together,” Mr. McCormack said in an email.

After Cu Rua’s death, the corpse was kept in cold storage for weeks at the Vietnam National Museum of Nature, at minus 15 degrees Celsius, as the authorities debated how best to preserve it.

“It is not simple to mummify the turtle, so intensive consideration is inevitable,” Nguyen Trung Minh, the museum’s director general, said in 2016. The government ultimately rejected traditional mummification techniques and opted to plastify the animal instead, with help from German experts.

The plastinated Cu Rua now shares a room in Ngoc Son Temple with an embalmed relative who died in 1967. It can now be safely displayed at room temperature, but to shield it from dust, mildew and sunlight, the authorities have placed it in a glass case.

Ngoc Son Temple sits on an island in Hoan Kiem Lake that is connected to shore by a footbridge. The lake is a short drive from Ho Chi Minh’s granite-and-marble mausoleum, which Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, visited this month after his failed summit meeting with President Trump.

Source: Vietnam Embalms a Sacred Turtle, Lenin-Style – The New York Times

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