Tears for the Yangtze Finless Porpoise



Posted on 25 March 2011  | 
When the Baiji Dolphin was declared "functionally extinct" in 2006, it was a once-in-25-million-year event. Never before had a whole species of dolphin been wiped off the planet because of human activity. Despite a last-ditch effort to save the species, it was a case of too little too late. Now experts are focusing their efforts on another species in the Yangtze River – the finless porpoise – a close relative of the Baiji. They’re working on mobilizing enough help and resources to make sure that history won’t repeat itself.

15 years until total extinction

A recent WWF report titled World's Top 10 Rivers at Risk featured two Chinese rivers – one of them being the Yangtze. The longest river in Asia, the Yangtze is one of the only two rivers in the world with two types of dolphin. That was, until 2006 when the Baiji dolphin was declared “functionally extinct”. Its close cousin – the finless porpoise – known for its mischievous smile, has 15 years until it too could become extinct. 

The finless porpoise is a mammal that resides in coastal waters and some rivers in tropical and subtropical Asia. The Yangtze finless porpoise is the sole freshwater sub-species of the whole family of porpoise only living in the Yangtze. Though smaller than a dolphin, the finless porpoise has the same size brain as its close relative – with a level of intelligence comparable to that of a gorilla. 

The finless porpoise’s reproduction rate is low – a typical pregnancy lasts 11 months and results in a single birth. Female finless porpoise have an extremely strong maternal instinct and rarely, if ever, abandon their offspring when faced with danger. Male finless porpoises are also known to share in the raising of offspring and are often observed playing with them.

20 years ago, WWF estimated that finless porpoise numbers would stay at around 2,700. By 2006, the number had dropped to 1,200 – less than the total number of wild giant pandas. At present, the number of Yangtze finless porpoises is decreasing by 5%-10% a year. If nothing is done, the finless porpoise is likely to be completely wiped out like the Baiji dolphin before it.  The species is classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.  

There is an increasing awareness that in protecting the finless porpoise, the entire aquatic system and its biodiversity must also be protected. If the ecosystem can’t be protected, more and more animals will disappear.

Threats

The WWF World’s Top 10 Rivers at Risk report revealed that nearly half of China's sewage and industrial discharge end up in the Yangtze. Water quality in the river is decreasing rapidly. Illegal fishing, shipping and dam building are just some of the number of human activities that are on the rise.

And as this activity increases, living space for finless porpoises is becoming ever smaller. At present, the species are only able to survive in Dongting and Poyang Lakes, as well as part of the Yangtze River. But even in those final refuges, they are having a tough time. Perhaps most crucial to the further survival of the finless porpoise is its food supply. The destruction of the Baiji dolphins’ food supply was central to its own eradication.

Over-fishing is chiefly to blame for the decrease in food supply; as well as occasionally directly killing the porpoise. "If we do not strictly control over-fishing, all the other remedial measures will be futile," claims Xie Songguang, a researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Aside from over-fishing, increases in pollution, ship movement and modern fishing methods are also to blame for the depletion in the food supply. Toxic and hazardous chemicals pass through the food chain of the whole ecosystem. As they are situated at the top of this food chain, the finless porpoise ends up taking in all of the accumulated toxicity. This endangers not just individual animals, but the species as a whole.

Measures

The loss of the Baiji so shocked those in conservation circles, government and the general public that it has prompted a marked increase in attention on the protection of Yangtze River ecosystems. There are currently seven national or provincial level reserves and three monitoring sites in place. A Yangtze Dolphin Network composed of the Reserves, Fishery Administration and the Institute of Hydrobiology of Chinese Academy of Science and WWF is beginning to take shape.

Scientists have created a kind of “oasis” in the Shishou Tian’e Zhou Baiji Dolphin Protection Zone. In sanctuaries like these, Yangtze finless porpoises are able to live a normal life and steadily multiply. Researchers are looking at how they might be able to further increase numbers. “We are conducting artificial feeding and breeding research that we hope will result in a further increase in porpoise numbers” says Wang Kexiong, an assistant researcher in the Institute of Hydrobiology of Chinese Academy of Science in Wuhan.

Similar research is also underway at the Wuhan Baiji Dolphinarium, which for the past 15 years has held five Yangtze finless porpoises.

Outlook

Proper protection of finless porpoises will require more investment and closer attention from the national government. Stronger Yangtze River protection laws should be issued and much of the fishing that goes on in the river should be banned. The Yangtze finless porpoise protection ranking should go from Class 2 Protection level to Class 1 to reflect the seriousness of its current predicament.

In September 2008, WWF, the Aquatic & Wildlife Protection Office, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Institute of Hydrobiology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences formally launched a sound protection system for monitoring, rescuing and protecting the finless porpoise.

WWF is also working closely with RARE on the "PROUD" project in Lujiao Town, near Dongting Lake. The project aims to reign in over-fishing in the area as well as stop irresponsible fishing practices such as the use of electricity.

WWF is also working on providing feasible alternative industries for fishermen, helping them develop the economy, and encouraging them to be directly involved in the protection of the finless porpoise.

The survival of the Yangtze River dolphin species should be seen as a benchmark for whether sustainable development itself can survive in China. In a way, the fate of the Chinese nation lies in the survival of the finless porpoise.
Every death brings the Finless Porpoise closer to extinction.
© Gao Baoyan / WWF Enlarge
Finless Porpoises lack a dorsal fin.
© Gao Baoyan / WWF Enlarge

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