Preservation stepped up to retain "smile" of Yangtze finless porpoise
The Yangtze finless porpoises, a kind of mammal, live in shallow waters close to the banks or islets in the middle of the Yangtze River--China's longest natural waterway. [Photo: dfic.cn]
What are the Yangtze finless porpoises and why they are endangered?
The Yangtze finless porpoise, also known as the river dolphin, is an extremely endangered species under the highest level of national protection in China.
The porpoises, a kind of mammal, live in shallow waters close to the banks or islets in the middle of the Yangtze River--China's longest natural waterway.
Hu Shibin, head of the patrol and protection team in Anqing which aims to protect the Yangtze finless porpoise, describes the life habits of these rare animals:
"You can seldom find the Yangtze finless porpoise in fast-moving waters. They hunt small fish, so they usually appear in the meadow areas of the river, where small fish concentrate. The porpoises appear and hunt in groups. They swallow their prey whole because they can't bite with their tiny teeth."
Hu Shibin, also chief of the Anhui Yangtze River Protection Association, says the porpoises are very sensitive creatures:
"The animals can sense unfriendly human activities, such as noisy transport ships, from far away. They immediately flee the areas when they sense potential danger. For example, using ultrasonic waves, they can sense loud noises produced by the large cargo ships from scores of meters away. So they can avoid danger in advance."
The 6,300 kilometer Yangtze River, which flows east, is a major waterway busy with water transport in China, linking 11 provincial-level regions.
River transport itself isn't a major threat to the animals, but there are two other dangers they are constantly facing – and can do nothing about.
Hu Shibin elaborates:
"Wharf construction poses a major danger to the Yangtze finless porpoise. A wharf is usually built in the meadow area of the river, which is just their habitat. When building a wharf, builders will dig deep under the meadow area. This destroys the habitat of the animals and they can no longer stay there."
As well as wharf construction, the other even more serious danger is water pollution – with factories dumping polluted water into the river and poisoning the water.
"When the polluted water flows into the Yangtze River, the water quality gets worse. This has a huge negative impact on the porpoise," points out Hu Shibin.
Today there are just some 1,000 of the Yangtze finless porpoises left alive in the world, a population smaller than that of the giant panda. [Photo: dfic.cn]
In fact, the Yangtze finless porpoise and much of the Yangtze River eco-system have been struggling to survive for decades.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, today only around 1,000 finless porpoises still navigate the Yangtze's twists and turns—a wild population smaller than that of the giant panda.
The now grave situation faced by the Yangtze finless porpoises was not obvious before the 1990s.
Fifty-three year old Zhang Xianmin, a local resident in Anqing, remembers that the sight of a porpoise was a common one when he was a boy:
"When I was a child, I used to play beside the Yangtze River after school. You know, my family lived along the river bank. I often saw schools of river dolphins in the River, especially in the autumn. There were so many of them at that time!"
But that common scene did not last long. Since the 1990s, China has been going through a colossal economic expansion. This rapid growth has lifted more than 700 million people out of poverty and transformed a backwater, agrarian society into the world's second largest economy.
The 1.8 million-square-kilometer Yangtze River basin provides water, transport, and food for over 40 percent of China's 1.4 billion people. The vast region also produces more than 40 percent of the country's GDP.
But it's come at a cost: this massive economic expansion has made the Yangtze, the third-longest river in the world, one of the world's most polluted rivers as well.
Wharfs, factories, cargo and fishing ships have concentrated an unprecedented intensity of human activities on the river system.
About 40 percent of China's sewage and industrial discharge—tens of billions of tons a year—ends up in the river, according to a central government document.
The pollution has caused a critical situation in the eco-system of the river, and it's only recent awareness by a growing number of ordinary Chinese people and the government that has prompted greater efforts to try to restore and protect it.
About 150 of all the 1,000 existing Yangtze finless porpoises live in the Anqing section of the Yangtze River. [Photo: dfic.cn]
How efforts are being played out to save the species?
The Anqing section of the Yangtze River in Anhui Province is one of the Yangtze finless porpoise's key habitation areas. In 2007, Anqing designated an 806-square kilometer city-level nature reserve for the porpoises.
But according to an investigation by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, the nature reserve was in a bad state due to lax planning and supervision.
In late 2018, the Ministry reported that the local authorities had haphazardly adjusted the size of the nature reserve, cutting it to 552 square kilometers in 2015.
In one particular case, the Ministry said that Anqing officials excluded a section of 91 kilometers of the Yangtze River from the original nature reserve in its 2015 adjustment. This led to the loss of protection for some 50 porpoises.
Meanwhile, the Ministry has found dozens of wharfs and anchorages within the reserve, which it says are detrimental to the wellbeing of the river dolphins.
The Ministry's findings have put great pressure on the local authorities to take effective measures to protect the water creatures.
As soon as the problems were identified, environmental protection officials in Anqing began to move, closing illegal wharfs and polluting factories and cracking down on destructive fishing activities.
Chen Yanrun, an official in charge of the environmental protection work in Anqing, says local authorities have been carrying out a massive crackdown on environmental violations within the nature reserve:
"We have come up with a list of 474 tasks that we can do to better enforce the environmental protection laws and regulations. If we fulfill these tasks, we can solve the problems that pose a danger to the survival of the porpoises."
Chen adds that local environment law enforcement personnel have fanned out to investigate and monitor all 153 water pollution discharge outlets within Anqing's jurisdiction.
He says they will leave no stone unturned during their investigations and monitoring. All illegal and substandard outlets will be switched off and their source factories fined or shut down.
At the same time, the city plans to remove all wharfs and anchorages deemed harmful to the wellbeing of the Yangtze finless porpoise.
"We plan to demolish or cancel 43 wharfs and anchorages. So far 18 of them have been demolished. We'll finish handling another 20 of them by the end of this year. In short, we'll finish this job by the end of 2020.
“Meanwhile, we'll try to improve and upgrade another 31 wharfs to make them meet relevant environmental standards. If any of these wharfs don't meet the standards by the end of this year, they will be demolished anyway," says Chen.
With regard to illegal fishing, Anqing authorities will finish checking all 492 fishing boats operating in the Anqing section of the Yangtze River by the end of this year.
From 2020, a blanket fishing ban will be imposed on the Anqing section of the Yangtze River. The ban is part of a national plan to ban fishing in the mainstreams, tributaries and lakes connected to the Yangtze River by the end of 2020. The length of the fishing ban has been tentatively set at 10 years.
In Anqing, Chen Yanrun says all these unprecedented efforts aim to create an ideal habitat for the Yangtze finless porpoise so that the mammals can recover and live well:
"The Yangtze finless porpoise is an important species of the Yangtze River. Through all our rehabilitation and protection work, we aim to preserve the 'smile' of the porpoises. We also hope the creature will become a symbol of Anqing."
As environmental officials step up their protection efforts, many private citizens are also doing their bit to help save the endangered animals.
Hu Shibin's patrol and protection team was put together two years before the massive official protection was implemented in Anqing.
Hu recruited his team members mainly from fishermen, who are familiar with the river and also interested in protecting their environment.
Now his team of more than ten members is responsible for patrolling 120 kilometers of the Yangtze River. A total of 170 kilometers of the river falls under the jurisdiction of the city of Anqing. This means that the quasi-official team takes up the task of patrolling about 70 percent of the Anqing section.
Under the guidance of the local fishing administration, the patrol team focuses on identifying illegal fishing activities, as well as illegal sand extraction and pollution discharge.
When they spot such illegal activities, they report them to the local fishing administration as they themselves have no authority to enforce the law.
The team also sometimes patrols with fishery enforcement personnel and helps them enforce the law on the spot. The team carries out patrols at least every other day on average.
The patrol and protection team in Anqing headed by Hu Shibin (third from left) aims to preserve the Yangtze finless porpoises. [Photo: dfic.cn]
Hu Shibin is hopeful that the living environment for the Yangtze finless porpoise will improve with their efforts:
"My patrol team uncovered more than 1,000 cases of illegal fishing and helped officials put an end to these activities throughout 2018. This is expected to improve the habitat for the porpoises."
In fact, Hu's team has taken risks to protect the river dolphins during their patrols.
Zhang Xianmin, the 53-year-old experienced member of the patrol team, explains:
"Once we found a large electro-fishing boat during our patrol. A couple and a child were onboard. After we sounded sirens and tried to chase them, they rashly turned towards us with their boat.
“We narrowly avoided being hit, and had to think about the safety not only of us but of the child on their boat. Then we patiently followed the boat before finally making them stop and bringing them under control."
Fifty-three year old Zhang Xianmin, previously a fisherman, has been serving on the Yangtze finless porpoise patrol and protection team for some two years. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]
With such kind of risk-taking efforts, Hu Shibin says that his team has already reported some initial signs of improvement in the wellbeing of the rare animals:
"On November 16th, 2018, we spotted some Yangtze finless porpoises in an area where we'd never found them before. We spotted some 10 porpoises together in that particular area.
“This means the environment is improving. According to the daily observations of our patrol team, it's likely that the number of the porpoises is on the rise."
Happy to see the improvement, Hu Shibin points out that the wellbeing of the animals is closely connected to the overall natural environment of the Yangtze River itself:
"The porpoise is an indicator of the health of the Yangtze River. If the number of the animals increases, it means the water quality of the river must have improved."
Currently, about 150 of all the 1,000 existing animals live in the Anqing section of the Yangtze.
Hu Shibin, who is also chief of the non-government Anhui Yangtze River Protection Association, is appealing for more government support for his cause:
"First, we hope the government can give us some financial support. Second, we hope the government can provide us with some patrol equipment. For example, the binoculars we need when we patrol must be of high-quality. But we can't afford them. So we need government help in this regard."
Hu Shibin says government and non-government efforts should complement each other in working towards the rehabilitation and protection of the environment of the Yangtze River:
"To protect the environment better, we need cooperation between the government and non-government sectors. Government efforts may not be enough to fulfill all the tasks. Non-government sectors like our association can make up for that. So a combination of government and non-government efforts is essential."
The Anhui Yangtze River Protection Association relies on donations from foundations and enterprises which pay special attention to environment protection. The river dolphin patrol team in Anqing can only pay a monthly salary of less than 3,000 yuan, or about 450 US dollars, to its members. This is much less than the average wage of the people in Anqing city.
At the national level, the central government unveiled an action plan to protect and restore the Yangtze River at the beginning of this year.
The plan listed eight major tasks for local authorities, including strengthening industrial, agricultural and shipping pollution treatment, ensuring the safety of drinking water and cracking down on ecological destruction.
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