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New hope for the Yangtze porpoise

By Mable-Ann Chang | China Daily | Updated: 2018-08-13 09:29

A Yangtze finless porpoise is seen in Poyang Lake in January. [Photo/Xinhua]

Under the intensely hot sun of early August, I looked out onto the Yangtze River both in awe and envy at the smooth gray bodies that seemed to swim so effortlessly just below the water's surface. They flowed gracefully through the river they have known as home their whole lives, none the wiser to the dangers that their kind faces.

The Yangtze finless porpoise is a critically endangered subspecies of porpoise that has been in continuous decline in the Yangtze over the past 20 years. It is increasingly evident that these intelligent mammals are unable to withstand the mounting pressures that we have been placing on them.

After the Yangtze dolphin became almost extinct in 2006, the importance of reversing the trends that led to its demise became evident. Other wildlife in the river should not be forced down the same path.

Finless porpoises - dubbed "water pandas", as there are fewer of them than there are giant pandas left in the world - have been placed under protection by various government initiatives, introduced with the aim of saving these highly intelligent creatures.

Measures include the building of natural reserves and observation decks, support from research teams, reduction of pollution, halting illegal fishing, protecting habitat and providing medical assistance.

Chen Shouwen, a representative of the Anqing Finless Porpoise Reservation, highlighted the next steps that need to be taken. They include closed fishing seasons to allow porpoises' food reserves to become more stable; cutting noise pollution from boats on the river, which affects the porpoises' sonar abilities; and stopping the illegal dredging of sand from riverbanks, which creates environmental havoc.

Saving the finless porpoise is the morally right course. In addition, the overall balance of the ecosystem needs to be taken into account. The Yangtze - the longest river in Asia - is an important economic lifeline for millions of Chinese people.

Government initiatives have helped the finless porpoise inch away from extinction, with 1,012 recorded in a survey late last year, but there is still a long way to go before the animals can be removed from the endangered species list.

Here's hoping that further action will be taken quickly to save the finless porpoise and its environment from the past pattern of decline, and that similar actions will be taken to save its cousin halfway around the world, the Mexican vaquita porpoise, of which there are less than three dozen left.

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