A crew led by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture traveled down the mainstream of the Yangtze River in 2012 looking for as many Yangtze finless porpoises they could find. They spotted 380 during the expedition and estimated that around 500 were still living in the Yangtze and its associated lakes and tributaries.
That was roughly half the population living in the Yangtze in 2006.
“The whole Yangtze is facing challenges from human activities,” says Wang Qian, acting director of water footprint for WWF-China’s Yangtze program.
The Yangtze finless porpoise is one species that has suffered from the consequences of rapid development in China in recent decades. Between water pollution, sand dredging, overfishing, illegal fishing and shipping activity on the Yangtze River, the finless porpoise population has continued to decline. After the 2012 expedition, it was determined that the population had fallen below 1,000 in the Yangtze—less than the total number of giant pandas still alive, according to scientists.
The Baiji dolphin—a relative of the finless porpoise—didn’t survive the degradation of the Yangtze River. In 2006, the species was declared functionally extinct when a similar expedition failed to locate a single Baiji dolphin on the Yangtze River. It is widely considered the first dolphin to be driven to extinction by human activity.
Yangtze finless porpoises are now in the midst of their own fight. The river’s population of around 1,000 is declining by almost 14 percent every year, and threats from human activities aren’t going to stop anytime soon. At the current rate, the finless porpoise could be extinct by 2030.
“We have to keep the gene of this species timely or else they are gone,” Wang says. “We cannot wait until our Yangtze has improved to a very preferable (state).”
With the Yangtze in a state of turmoil, scientists in China have turned to a series of lakes called oxbow lakes in recent years to create refuges for porpoises. Oxbow lakes are U-shaped bodies of water that were at one point connected to a river’s main stem and were cut off, whether naturally or through human intervention for the purpose of easier navigation. While oxbow lakes have the potential to become polluted through agricultural practices, they can be suitable habitats for an endangered species like the finless porpoise if they are maintained enough to avoid the threats that plague the Yangtze.
The Tian-e-zhou Oxbow—where WWF has done restorative work in partnership with the Chinese government and private sector partners including
According to Wang, that has made the Tian-e-zhou Oxbow the first successful translocation site for Yangtze finless porpoises in history.
Similar conservation efforts are being made in two other lakes. The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture released six porpoises into the Xi-jiang oxbow in December 2016. WWF is also working in another oxbow called He-wang-miao/Ji-Cheng-Yuan where eight porpoises have been released.
“To date, it’s been very successful,” says Greg Koch, director of global water stewardship for The
"We reconnected it to the Yangtze so now, when the flood comes, they can open so you get a big exchange of water.”
Koch says that conserving the oxbow environment is just as important a task, as chemicals in agricultural runoff can turn a previously healthy lake into a dangerous home for porpoises and other wildlife. WWF and partners, including
“Actions continue,” says Wang. “The in-situ (original) sites are what we’re aiming for in the long run to give happy homes back to them.”