Wuhan, China – A research expedition underway on the Yangtze is looking to discover how many of the world’s only freshwater finless porpoises can be found in the river – and how to save the remaining population from extinction.
The endangered Yangtze finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides asiaeorientalis), which numbers less than 1,800 in the wild, lives mainly in the central and lower reaches of the 6300km Yangtze River and two large adjoining lakes, Dongting and Poyang.
Led by China’s Ministry of Agriculture and organized by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Hydrobiology (IHB) and WWF, the expedition comes only six years after the Baiji dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) – another rare cetacean and close relative of the finless porpoise – was declared functionally extinct after a similar Yangtze survey that also looked at porpoise numbers.
“We are not optimistic about the estimated results in the mainstream investigation at this moment,” said Wang Ding general director of both the 2006 and 2012 investigations and Research Fellow at the IHB. “But in addition to the numbers and distribution of the population of Yangtze finless porpoises, we will also investigate the fishery resources and water quality of the Yangtze River.”
Estimates from the 2006 survey say that the finless porpoise is expected to decline to around 200 by 2035 – Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List – if no effective protection measures are taken. More recent estimates are even less optimistic, saying that the species could become extinct in 15 years if no action is taken.
Recect survey finds stable population in some areas, sharp decline in others
A survey conducted in October 2012 in Dongting and Poyang lakes brought mixed news, with a sharp reduction in the Dongting population while Poyang Lake numbers were mostly stable.
“The initial findings from the 2012 survey in the two lakes show that there are around 450 finless porpoises in Poyang Lake, and 90 in Dongting Lake,” said Wang Ding. “Compared with the survey results in 2006, the population in Dongting Lake has sharply declined, and their habitat has also shrunk. This shows their living conditions are getting worse and worse.”
The downturn in porpoise numbers is the result of many different factors including food shortages, accidents with boat engine propellers, pollution and electro-fisihing, where electrical currents are sent into the water to stun fish before they are caught.
“As a symbol of the Yangtze ecosystem, the status of the finless porpoise is a reflection of the the health of the Yangtze River. It has already lost the Baiji dolphin, and cannot bear losing Yangtze finless porpoise!” said Wang Kexiong, Research Associate from the IHB.
Scientists at the Wuhan-based IHB are now formulating an action plan to help conserve the rare porpoise. In addition to existing calls for more research on artificial propagation, scientists and policymakers will integrate data gathered during the expedition and include it in the final plan.
“If we are going to save the Yangtze finless porpoise from the same fate as the Baiji, we must take immediate action to keep the Yangtze River and its lakes healthy,” said Lei Gang, Director of WWF China’s Freshwater Program. “This means better laws and enforcement – we need to see harmful fishing practices stop, sand dredging better controlled, and new reserves developed.”
“But the Yangtze River isn’t going to be problem-free overnight. So to ensure the finless porpoise survives, we will also need to better understand where the best places are for this ancient animal to live, and learn a lot more about artificial propagation,” Lei Gang added.
The expedition will cover a 1,700km expanse of the Yangtze, taking researchers from Yichang to Shanghai and back again. Preliminary results will be announced from mid to late December, and the complete report will be released in March 2013.
High notes: Chinese pop star Zhang Liangying
WWF’s Yangtze finless porpoise conservation ambassador Zhang Liangying (Jane Zhang) showed her support before the expedition got underway at a Friday night concert in Shenzhen with a performace of the song “Grateful”. Acknowledging that the porpoise is known for its mischievous smile, the pop star said the song will help “keep the smile on Yangtze finless porpoises’ face” to a packed house.
The musician also said that the song will be presented to WWF, with all proceeds donated to Yangtze finless porpoise conservation.
“The Yangtze finless porpoise is the symbol of our mother river, the Yangtze River, and to protect them means to protect ourselves.” said Jane Zhang. “WWF and the experts from the Institute of Hydrobiology have done a lot to protect Yangtze finless porpoise, and that is worth admiration. I hope that I will have the opportunity to visit Yangtze finless porpoise again in the Yangtze River, and do more for Yangtze finless porpoise, she added.