If I asked you to name an endangered species in China you’d probably think of the Panda? Last month, I was lucky to travel to see our work in the Yangtze River, China, tracking the story of another lesser known, but critically endangered local species – the Yangtze Finless Porpoise.
I was travelling with staff from our long-standing supporter HSBC. HSBC have funded our work in the Yangtze for more than a decade and the trip offered a rare chance to reflect on the impacts which such a significant, long-term commitment can make. As luck would have it, our visit coincided with a rather momentous event – but more on that later!
A sad history
The stats in our latest Living Planet Report showed that Freshwater species are in crisis – with global populations declining by 76% since 1970s. Many already know the sad story of the Baiji – the Yangtze River Dolphin, known as the ‘Goddess of the River’. The Baiji took the brunt of the declines in the Yangtze habitat. In the 1990s there were many projects underway to try to save the dolphin, but these were too late and the Baiji was declared functionally extinct in 2006.
Since this tragic loss, we’ve been fighting hard to save the Baiji’s cousin – the Yangtze finless porpoise. My colleague Qian told us that in comparison to the Baiji, the Finless Porpoise has had an undeserved reputation for ugliness and known as the ‘River Pig’. However, the porpoise’s need for the love of the Chinese people is great.
There are now as few as 1000 finless porpoises left in the Yangtze and these are fragmented into small groups. The porpoises are at risk due to the same threats which the Baiji faced and with an annual decline rate of over 13% are expected to become extinct within 5-10 years without strong action.
Saving the ‘smile’ of the Yangtze finless porpoise
In the 14 years of work under the HSBC funded programmes, the team here has had some real wins for the finless porpoise. Our group braved a rainy day to visit Tian e Zhou, an absolutely enormous oxbow lake reserve in the Yangtze which was first intended as a reserve for the Baiji. Oxbow lakes offer great spaces for protected areas as they are historic habitat connected to the Yangtze, yet can offer quiet spaces for birds and wildlife to thrive if government and local communities are supportive.
We’ve been working with governments, communities and other NGO partners over a number of years to ensure that Tian e Zhou can achieve its vision of being a stronghold for these endangered Yangtze cetaceans. Since the start of the project 16 Finless Porpoises have been moved from other parts of the Yangtze into the safe space of Tian e Zhou and they seem to be doing really well, with the lake now holding a population of around 45, with up to six new babies now born each year. Qian told me that we ultimately hope to achieve a population of 80.
To support and expand the successes at Tian e zhou, WWF China has been working hard to build up public awareness and support for Finless Porpoise. Activities so far have covered a lot of ground – from sculpture exhibitions, to sponsored runs, to a pop song raising funds – all to encourage the Chinese people to join in and help to save the ‘smile’ of the finless porpoise. During our trip I noticed that there’s even a Finless Porpoise mascot costume – which certainly draws a crowd at events.
We’ve also seen some strong new commitments from government. China’s Ministry of Agriculture, one of our key stakeholders, recently upgraded its level of protection for the finless porpoise to the strictest classification enforceable by law. This is a major breakthrough, which we’ve been pursuing and advocating for decades and which will put in place the best, lasting resources and frameworks to keep the porpoise safe.
A new beginning
I started my story with the tragedy of the Baiji – I’d like to end it with a new beginning. During our trip we were honoured to be part of a really momentous event – the official launch of a brand new Finless Porpoise reserve at He Wang Miao lake and the release of its first inhabitants.
We met two local men down by the waters edge, Mo Dehong and Wang Minghan, and it was great to see their support for the new reserve. Mr Wang told us: “…it is 30 years since I last recall seeing a porpoise in the lake, I welcome their return – this is a precious species.”
We were delighted to offer HSBC as our longstanding partner in this work a place alongside ministers of the Chinese government in the multi-partner release ceremony. Here you’ll see the moment the first 2 porpoises swam off into the lake. As you can imagine there was huge interest from the national and international media with TV crews and newspapers documenting this momentous milestone for the Yangtze. It’s not that often that you see government ministers snapping shots on their smart phones – certainly a moment for the grandchildren.
It takes time and bold vision from many different groups to make change for a species like the Finless Porpoise and for a mighty river like the Yangtze. Our visit and our reflections on the achievements of the past 10 years brought this home – but it also showed that there is hope. I’m thinking of those four pioneer porpoises on He Wang Miao and wishing them well.