One of the world's rarest creatures, a Yangtze giant softshell turtle, has died in captivity.

Its death leaves just three turtles left known to humanity.

The female turtle died in Suzhou zoo in South China.

The Yangtzee turtle species (Rafetus swinhoei) has suffered from extreme over hunting, and destruction of its habitat. It is thought to be extinct in the wild.

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The area for which it is named and its main habitat, the Yangtzee River, has been altered beyond recognition by disruptive hydroelectric dams, shipping and pollution.

Workers had been attempting to artificially inseminate the Yangtze turtle when she died this weekend. Photo / Getty, VCG
Workers had been attempting to artificially inseminate the Yangtze turtle when she died this weekend. Photo / Getty, VCG

The female turtle which died on Saturday, is survived by a male tortoise that is estimated to be over 100 years old.

There are also two known turtles living in Vietnam. However, the fate of the species is looking dire.

Zoo conservation staff had been trying to artificially inseminate the turtle over the weekend.

The programme at the zoo had been hoping the two turtles would reproduce naturally, but this had not been successful.

However the female turtle's health deteriorated in the 24 hours following the insemination operation.

The female Yangtze giant softshell turtle died at Suzhou Zoo, China. Photo / Getty Images, VCG
The female Yangtze giant softshell turtle died at Suzhou Zoo, China. Photo / Getty Images, VCG

While no direct cause has been drawn up for the turtle's death, the animal's ovaries and reproductive tissues have collected for future research.

The Suzhou Daily reported an autopsy had been ordered to determine the cause of death.

These turtles are the largest freshwater species in the world and can weigh up to 100kg and grow to over a metre.

But without a breeding pair the giant reptiles which can live for decades may now suffer a long drawn out extinction.