China’s smiling angel: Small victory for Yangtze River porpoise is big wave to take endangered species forward

  • Conservationists hail a slowing decline in numbers of the aquatic mammal
  • Human activity has played a part in fate of porpoise population
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 December, 2018, 5:08pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 December, 2018, 5:27pm

Conservationists say there are signs of hope for the Yangtze finless porpoise, the only aquatic mammal left in China’s longest river, after years of attrition from pollution, overfishing, hydroelectric dams and shipping traffic.

An oxbow lake along the middle reaches of the Yangtze River is a focus for efforts to save the aquatic mammal population, put at 1,012 by the government last year.

Porpoise numbers fell by nearly half from 2006-2012 to an estimated 1,040. But the rate of decline has slowed markedly since then, suggesting that conservation measures may be effective.

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Glimpses of the Yangtze finless porpoise, known in Chinese as the “smiling angel” for its perma-grin, are rare. But introduction of porpoise to several conservation areas off the busy river meant, researchers said, that its numbers were increasing.

About 30 to 40 porpoise were taken to the Tianezhou Oxbow Nature Reserve in central China’s Hubei province, a curving lake linked to the Yangtze by a stream, in the early 1990s. There are now about 80.

“We found out animals cannot 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 credit government restrictions on pollution and overfishing, artificial reproduction projects, and growing environmental awareness among China’s human population of the porpoise population for the successes.

“The voice and supervision of the public has played an important role,” said Zhang Xinqiao, species project manager at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Chinese officials are keen to avoid a repeat of the “baiji”, or Yangtze dolphin, the river’s other aquatic mammal, which since 2006 has been considered extinct.

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

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One of the world’s few freshwater porpoise subspecies, it is considered a barometer of the 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 call it the “river pig” for its plump body and rounded headed.

Adults can reach two metres (six feet) long and were sometimes eaten. 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 river in the world, according to Dutch NGO Ocean Cleanup.

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

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

Later that year, a formal porpoise action plan was launched, including increased relocation away from the river, more reserve sites, and research on artificial breeding.

The Tianezhou reserve, established in 1992, claims to be the world’s first and only example of cetaceans – which include dolphin and porpoise – surviving and reproducing after relocation.

Fishermen near the lake were encouraged to change professions, and Wang Hesong, 46, became a patrolman at the reserve.

“Look over there, a mother and a baby,” Wang said, as his pilot cut their patrol boat’s engine at the sight of two arched backs breaking the surface. The mammals quickly submerged.

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“They only come up for a couple of seconds to breathe … We go out patrolling every day and we see them every day,” Wang said.

The 21-kilometre-long (13-mile) lake offers sanctuary, but porpoise within the river face intense pressure.

Zhang said the species’ days in the river may be numbered.

“They have nowhere to hide in the river,” he said. “As long as danger exists, such as a further deterioration of natural habitat, it’s very likely their numbers could drastically decrease again.”

With the clock ticking, a research facility in the nearby industrial city of Wuhan hosts six finless porpoise for research, breeding, and to engage the public.

Two gracefully circled by an observation window that looks into their huge tank, playfully tilting their bodies to glimpse the human visitors.

“They are saying ‘hi’ to us,” said Liu Hanhui, a volunteer. “I think they understand human feelings.”

The WWF said adult Yangtze finless porpoise have the intelligence of a three-to-five-year-old child.

Just before feeding, they are coaxed to open their mouths on cue, show off their smiles, and shake hands by extending a flipper.

Yet they are difficult to breed in captivity.

A calf born in June at the dolphinarium – founded in 1980 – is only the second produced there to survive more than 100 days, while wild calves often die before adulthood due to human impact on the environment.

Liu, an aquaculture student at a nearby university, and 40 other volunteers help feed them on weekends and holidays, and take part in activities to promote awareness.

Conservation programmes and events in the region have proliferated in recent years, backed by scores of businesses and NGOs aiming to instruct the public and encourage greater government protection efforts.

“Our development has caused a species to rapidly disappear. I feel like I’m atoning for mankind’s crimes,” Liu said.