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.

Individuals from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, WWF and Coca-Cola gather at the Department of River Dolphin Research at the Academy’s Institute of Hydrobiology.

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.

WWF—a longstanding Coca-Cola partner—and the Chinese government are making efforts to slow that decline.

“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.

A finless porpoise is fed by a tender at the Department of River Dolphin Research, one institution that has housed the species as its natural habitat has become polluted.

The Tian-e-zhou Oxbow—where WWF has done restorative work in partnership with the Chinese government and private sector partners including Coca-Cola and HSBC Bank—is one of them. It lies in the southern part of the Hubei province. Five porpoises were translocated to the Tian-e-zhou in 1990, and the species has been breeding successfully since then. It’s one of the few cases where finless porpoises are thriving; there are now more than 60 finless porpoises living in the lake, according to a census taken in November 2015. That figure is nearly double the number that lived there five years ago.

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 Coca-Cola Company. “They’re breeding in the natural environment. Now, you still need to flush that oxbow lake. If nothing else, just to get fresh water in it, fresh nutrients. So what we did is put in a sluicegate (a sliding gate that controls the flow of water like a dam).

"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 Coca-Cola, have worked with local farmers to improve their practices in ways that benefit both the environment and crop incomes. Leveling farmers’ land and placing agrochemicals more strategically prevents runoff from contaminating lakes. It also saves farmers money and energy.

“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.”