HANOI, Vietnam (AP) - They're calling him "the lucky royal turtle" - he's an endangered reptile that was saved from a Chinese soup pot by keen-eyed wildlife officers and a tiny microchip.
He was taken from a Cambodian river two months ago and toted across the Vietnamese border on a motorbike, along with a stash of other, more common, turtles. Conservationists say that at 15 kilograms, the animal was sure to have fetched a good price when it reached the smuggler's destination - food markets in China.
Turtle meat is a delicacy in China, and is often made into soup.
But a raid on the smuggler's house in southern Vietnam saved the turtle, and wildlife officers were surprised to see how big he was, and later, the microchip in his wrinkly skin.
The microchip pinpointed the turtle's exact home, where he is now being shipped back to.
He was shipped back to Cambodia last week and is undergoing health checks before being released back into the wild.
Experts say there are only about two to eight females remaining there, making this adult male turtle's return even more vital. It was tagged for research two years ago and had not been seen until its discovery in Vietnam.
Many Asian turtles are in danger because of the thriving trade in animals in the region, where a species' rarity can add to its value on a menu or as a traditional medicine.
The Batagur baska is found only in parts of India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia, and populations have been sharply declining in recent years.
After being rescued, the Vietnamese wildlife officials consulted an endangered species book, then called Doug Hendrie, an Asian turtle specialist in Hanoi for the New York-based World Conservation Society, and told him they thought they had a Batagur baska, or Asian river terrapin.
At first, Hendrie thought the wildlife officers must be joking.
"I was very surprised when I heard they had a Batagur baska down there," said Hendrie, who also works for the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. "Initially I said, 'What else do they have? A lion? A zebra?"'
But a photo soon confirmed it was indeed a Batagur baska, a species thought to have disappeared in Cambodia until it was rediscovered in 2001. Conservationists later began tagging the animals with tracking devices and monitoring their nests, and King Norodom Sihamoni personally ordered their protection.
On one river in western Malaysia, 690 Batagur baska turtles were found in 1999, compared to only 40 last year, Hendrie said.
"Every single turtle is important to the population," he said. "This was the first case where an animal had been transferred back to where it came from in Cambodia. It was a landmark event."