Have we not learned the Yanstze baiji? It seems plain that we have not!
Increasing pollution of the Yangtze River and the threat this poses to the finless porpoise is also a warning for a third of the nation’s population that depends on these waters. Wang Ru of the China Daily reports.
The fishermen described them as shy animals thatoften chased their boats, making a whistling sound.However, the term “river pig” was not reallyappropriate for the clever animal, that fishermenrecall leaping out of the water in pairs or as a group.
He says she never spotted a “river pig” in herchildhood, but did witness the increasing dredgingof the river to feed the construction sites on itsbanks, and the resulting muddying of its waters.
He, a junior student of Chinese literature at CentralSouth University in Hunan province, recalls howshocked she was to see a photograph that stirredmuch online discussion. It was of a rescued dolphin-like animal seemingly shedding tears. She learnt itwas the “river pig” – the Yangtze finless porpoise – ofher childhood.
“I didn’t know dolphins could really cry until I joinedthe volunteer program funded by the World WildlifeFund (WWF) to protect the lovely but highly-endangered animal, but I now believe they do,” Hesays.
Even as World Freshwater Dolphin Day was markedon Oct 24, the finless porpoise in the Yangtze Riveris likely to meet the same fate as the baiji, the Yangtze River dolphin known as “the Yangtzegoddess”, and declared “functionally extinct” in 2006.
According to WWF, after years of efforts by scientists and environment protectionorganizations, China’s Ministry of Agriculture upgraded the conservation level of the finlessporpoise from grade 2 to grade 1 in June. The move is awaiting final approval from the StateCouncil.
Scientists estimate that the finless porpoise, a freshwater dolphin which has lived in theYangtze River and adjacent lakes for over 20 millions years, will become extinct within 15 years.
According to surveys done by the Hydrobiology Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences,the population of the Yangtze finless porpoise was about 2,700 in 1991.
By 2006, however, the numbers had dropped to between 1,200 and 1,400, with between 700and 900 in the Yangtze River and 500 in Poyang and Dongting lakes.
Now, scientists estimate the number of Yangtze finless porpoises is around 1,000 (there aremore giant pandas), and the number is decreasing at the rate of 5 percent every year.
The picture of the “crying finless porpoise” was taken in May,when a severe drought hit Central China and lowered waterlevels in the Swan Island National Nature Reserve in Shishou,Hubei province, which is inhabited by some 30 finlessporpoises. The river section favored by the dolphins hasshrunk to a 10-20 km area, commented Wang Ding, adolphin expert at the Hydrobiology Institute, in an earlierreport.
The porpoises stay in shallow waters close to the bank -waters with a soft or sandy riverbed – eating fish and shrimp.A porpoise has a lifespan of about 20 years and can grow toanywhere between 1.2 and 1.9 meters long.
“If their activity area is reduced, they might become strandedon the bank and will die if they cannot swim back,” he says.
Besides the extreme weather, human activities are a crucialreason for the deterioration of the environment.
“Human activities continue to severely threaten the finlessporpoise. We have not learnt the lesson from the extinctionof the baiji,” says Wang Kexiong, another expert from theInstitute of Hydrobiology, who conducted a three-day surveyof Dongting Lake in Hunan province.
According to Wang, dredging, overfishing, heavy traffic andpollution are the major factors threatening the animal.
Dredging makes the waters of the lake muddier, so thefinless porpoises cannot see as far as they once could andhave to rely on their highly developed sonar systems to avoidobstacles and look for food.
Large ships enter and leave the lake at the rate of two aminute, and this means the porpoises have difficulty locatingtheir food, and also cannot swim freely from one bank to theother.
In the research conducted in January, Wang found that dredging had cut off the only channelthrough which the finless porpoises could travel between the lake and the river, and this couldhave disrupted possible genetic exchanges among different groups of the species.
“Protecting the finless porpoise is about much more than maintaining wildlife diversity. If theydie, it is a warning that the Yangtze River is not suitable for humans as well,” Wang says.
Since June, WWF has recruited 15 volunteer teams, comprising college students involved inenvironment protection, experts and concerned citizens, to help protect the finless porpoise.
“Chinese people are familiar with the sad story of baiji, but few realize the finless porpoise isnow on the brink of extinction. We hope the volunteer program can raise awareness about thislovely animal and the environmental changes in the Yangtze River,” says Zeng Ming, a WWFofficer in charge of the program, titled “Saving the Smile of the Finless Porpoise”.
The teams have traveled to different sections of the central and lower reaches of the YangtzeRiver and adjacent lakes to research, survey and record the stories of the finless porpoise.
Li Xiuyuan, a volunteer from Hohai University in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, along with 18 otherstudent volunteers, walked through these sections of the Yangtze for two days, interviewingpeople and distributing and collecting questionnaires.
It was reported that at the beginning of the year, many people in Nanjing saw finless porpoisesunder Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge.
“Some elderly citizens said they could see the porpoises jumping out of water in the 1970s and80s, but they are rarely seen now,” says Li, who majored in hydrology and water-resourcemanagement.
“The worsening water quality of the Yangtze River impacts the survival of the porpoises. If theybecome extinct, it will definitely be bad news for a third of China’s population, who rely on theYangtze River.”
He Dan, who joined the Central South University team to travel to two towns and villages nearDongting Lake and investigate, says: “Some fishermen still use illegal fishing, such aselectrofishing and gillnetting, which could be fatal to the porpoises,” He says. “To avoid beingfined, they often go fishing at night.”
She is afraid she may never see a wild porpoise.
“I was moved by the picture of the smiling face of the lovely animal which has disappeared inmy hometown. If they eventually disappear due to human activities, future generations willnever forgive us,” she says.
Volunteers from Hohai University interview people living near the YangtzeRiver in Nanjing, Jiangsu province. Chen Chenghao / For China Daily
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