Fri, Dec 21, 2018 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: Yangtze finless porpoise fights to survive

AFP, WUHAN, China

A Yangtze finless porpoise swims in a pool at Baiji dolphinarium in Wuhan, China, on Nov. 10.

Photo: AFP

In an oxbow lake along the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, a breathy sigh pierces the surface stillness as one of China’s most endangered animals comes up for a gulp of hazy air.

A slick black back with no dorsal fin arches briefly above the water line before plunging back down.

Such glimpses of the shy Yangtze finless porpoise, the only aquatic mammal left in China’s longest river and known in Chinese as the “smiling angel” for its perma-grin, are increasingly rare.

Pollution, overfishing, hydroelectric dams and shipping traffic have rendered them critically endangered, worse off even than China’s best-known symbol of animal conservation, the panda.

The Chinese government estimated that there were 1,012 wild Yangtze finless porpoises last year, compared with more than 1,800 giant pandas, which are no longer endangered.

However, researchers see signs of hope.

Porpoise numbers fell by nearly half from 2006 to 2012 to an estimated 1,040, but the rate of decline has slowed markedly since then, suggesting that conservation might be making a dent.

A central component of the rescue effort is the introduction of porpoises to several conservation areas off the busy river, where researchers say numbers have been actually increasing.

At the Tianezhou Oxbow Nature Reserve in China’s Hubei Province, a curving lake linked to the Yangtze by a stream, 30 to 40 porpoises were brought in at the beginning of the 1990s. There are now about 80.

“We found out animals can not only survive, but also reproduce naturally and successfully at Tianezhou. That’s very encouraging,” said Wang Ding, 60, a porpoise expert with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Researchers also credit official clampdowns on polluting activities and fish overharvesting, artificial reproduction projects and increasing environmental awareness among China’s emerging middle class.

“The voice and supervision of the public has played an important role,” said Zhang Xinqiao, the species’ project manager at the WWF.

Chinese officials are keen to avoid a repeat of the baiji, or Yangtze dolphin, the river’s only other aquatic mammal, which since 2006 has been considered extinct in a huge conservation setback for China.

Losing the “smiling angel” would be a further tragedy, conservationists said.

One of the world’s few freshwater porpoise subspecies, it is considered a natural barometer of the overall health of China’s most important river.

The finless porpoise is mentioned in ancient Chinese poems and has been considered a harbinger of rain. Some locals call it the “river pig” for its plump body and rounded headed.

Adults can reach 2m long and were sometimes eaten, despite not being considered particularly tasty. Their livers were used in traditional medicines.

Since China reopened to the world four decades ago, living standards have soared, but so have air and water pollution.

The Yangtze contributes more to ocean pollution than any other world river, according to Dutch non-governmental organization (NGO) Ocean Cleanup.

Hydroelectric dams built on the river to satisfy soaring energy demand have also been disastrous for biodiversity.

However, in January 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) called for a river protection push. Steps have included curbs on development, stricter fishing rules and other protection projects.

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