Extinction Nears for China’s ‘River Pig,’ the Finless Porpoise
BEIJING — It’s known in China as the “river pig,” the finless porpoise that has lived in the Yangtze River system for about 300,000 years but may become extinct within 10. Why?
The ecology of the Yangtze is struggling against an onslaught of human activity: overfishing, including electro-fishing, which that stuns and kills the porpoise; sand dredging; heavy pollution; dams that change the water temperature and affect breeding patterns and block migration; and injury or death from ever-increasing river traffic, according to multiple reports in the Chinese media.
“The Yangtze is home to 400 million people and is the engine that drives roughly 40 percent of the entire Chinese economy,” wrote Peter Beaudoin, the chief executive of the World Wildlife Federation in China, in an article on Chinadialogue, an online environmental magazine.
“Economically, the Yangtze basin is thriving (at least for the time being). But at what price?” he asked. “Ecologically, the Yangtze is very unhealthy — if it was a human patient it would be placed in the intensive care unit.”
A Chinese environmentalist and scientist asked: “The changes on the Yangtze are a reflection of China’s economic development. How many species will we consume for the sake of G.D.P.?” The question was posed by Cheng Ran, a scientist at the Tongling Freshwater Porpoise Reserve, in an article in the Southern Weekly newspaper (reproduced here in English.)
In fact, China’s environment is under so much pressure it can be hard to know where to begin, environmentalists say.
Six years ago, the Baiji dolphin, which also lived in the Yangtze, was declared functionally extinct, “and it looks very much like its close relative, the finless porpoise, is heading in the same direction,” wrote Mr. Beaudoin. The finless porpoise looks like a dolphin but has no dorsal fin.
The Ministry of Agriculture recently announced that just 1,000 of the the world’s only freshwater subspecies of finless porpoise remained in the river, its tributaries and adjoining lakes. It’s declining at an annual rate of nearly 14 percent, the ministry said. A Chinese environmentalist Web site, Save Yangtze Finless Porpoise, is trying to raise awareness, as are a small group of dedicated scientists here.
The finless porpoise could still be saved, Mr. Beaudoin said. Here’s how:
“One solution is ex-situ conservation, where a number of animals are isolated on a portion of the river and provided with a safe habitat to thrive,” he wrote.
The Chinese government must classify the finless porpoise as a Level 1 species, he wrote. “This will ensure that there is focus on ensuring the long-term viability of the species.”
There must also be a push for finless porpoise conservation along the main stem of the Yangtze. “This is extremely challenging given the pressures, but must be done,” he wrote.
Otherwise the finless porpoise will be gone for good, he said, marking another defeat for the river’s biodiversity. Vanishing along with the porpoise will be a legendary fishermen’s protector, too.
“It was long also revered as a river god who could tell fishermen when a storm was on the way,” the Southern Weekly reported. “When a storm is brewing, these creatures are known to make repeated, small leaps out of the water.”
“Fishermen call it ‘saluting the wind’ and, warned of the coming storm, know to tie up their boats.”
Source : International Herald Tribune