The endangered Yangtze finless porpoise

Happy July! This month, we decided to celebrate the Yangtze finless porpoise. You might have heard of the Baiji, also called the Yangtze river dolphin. Sadly, the species was officially declared to be extinct in 2006. Yet, another freshwater species resides in the Yangtze River, and if you thought the Irrawaddy dolphin was the cutest, you are in for a treat: we might have found the cutest dolphin in the world! So let’s find out more about the Yangtze finless porpoise.

A smiling angel

The Yangtze finless porpoise is the only cetacean living in the Yangtze River in China. Speaking of, the Yangtze River is the third-longest river in the world! Experts believe the tiny porpoises live in the middle-lower Yangtze River: think from Wuhan to Shangai. The species is endemic to China and was named “the smiling angel” because of its mischievous smile and the fact that it is extremely rare.

A critically endangered subspecies

The Yangtze finless porpoise is actually a subspecies of narrow-ridged finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis). Indeed, the species includes our Yangtze finless porpoises and the East Asian finless porpoises. The species as a whole is endangered, but the resident subspecies in the Yangtze River gained the status of critically endangered in 2013. With 500 to 1800 individuals remaining, chances are low for the population to recover. Additionally, a study in 2014 focused on the genetic diversity within different populations of the Yangtze finless porpoise. In this study, researchers found that the genetic differences between the populations were increasing, meaning that populations could become isolated, which is bad news for the recovery of the subspecies.

The main threats to the porpoises’ survival include bycatch, noise, chemical pollution, starvation, and habitat degradation due to industrialization and sand mining. Bycatch is a real issue because a lot of illegal fishing activities still involve gillnets and electro-fishing. The porpoises can get caught in the gillnets or get electrocuted as a result. Since China’s development increased massively from the 90s to today, river traffic, dams, and industrialized areas have expanded. Therefore, the porpoises’ habitats have degraded, and more porpoises face collision risks from boats. Sand mining and the various industries on the river have been discharging all sorts of contaminants and sewage into the river, polluting both the porpoises and their prey.

China’s efforts to save the Yangtze finless porpoise

China already had to suffer from the loss of the Yangtze river dolphin, officially declared extinct in 2006. Therefore, they decided to focus their conservation efforts on their smiling angel and gave them the highest conservation status (National First Grade Key Protected Wild Animal). To give you an idea of how important this is, think that they are on par with China’s giant panda. China came up with several strategies to boost its population recovery, and it looks like their conservation efforts are paying, but is it enough?

In-situ conservation

The Yangtze finless porpoise’s status as National First Grade Key Protected Wild Animal makes it 100% illegal to harm or degrade the porpoises and their environment. China also created eight natural reservations to protect the Yangtze porpoises. Fishing activities have also been regulated in areas along the river to reduce the risk of bycatch and prevent a lack of prey for the porpoises.

Ex-situ conservation

Realistically speaking, experts do not expect the porpoises’ recovery in-situ to be successful after decades of intense anthropogenic activities. So the government has been betting on ex-situ conservation efforts to rescue smiling angels. Several individuals have been relocated to the nearby Tian’ezhou Nature Reserve, where their population has increased in the last decades. The authorities hope to reintroduce the porpoises into the river to boost their population recovery.

Artificial breeding

Breeding Yangtze finless porpoises has been extremely difficult, and the success of the breeding programs is debatable. Only four Yangtze finless porpoises successfully reached maturity in captivity. Last year, however, the first captive-born Yangtze finless porpoise was reintroduced in “the wild.” Indeed, the 4-year-old female, named Bei Bei, was released into the Tian’ezhou Nature Reserve. She will have to adapt to the protected lake before experts can hope to release her in the wild. Yet, captivity can become controversial. Recently, some local scientists have shown their frustration after some porpoises were, in the name of “conservation,” sent to aquaria known for their dolphin shows and cetacean exploitation… Is artificial breeding truly worth it and can it really help with the conservation of these smiling angels?

Public awareness

The WWF and the Saving Yangtze Finless Porpoise Alliance have been communicating about the endangered porpoises to the public, hoping it would engage local communities and help with their protection. WWF is also working with locals to restore wetlands and assisting industrial parks to improve their water efficiency to reduce pollution all along the Yangtze River.

In the end, it looks like China started taking the problem seriously. Whether the conservation strategies work or not… we’ll need new surveys and new data to conclude! The IUCN mentioned that “Most of the known threats to Finless Porpoises and the Yangtze ecosystem are still present, and at least some continue to escalate in severity. Unfortunately, development activities associated with China’s ongoing economic growth have largely prevailed over conservation, seriously jeopardizing the future survival of the Yangtze Finless Porpoise.”

Thank you for reading! Did you like the post? If so, tell us down below, and tell us if you have any opinion on the conservation efforts.

Sources and further reading

  • Wang, D., Turvey, S.T., Zhao, X. & Mei, Z. 2013. Neophocaena asiaeorientalis ssp. asiaeorientalisThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2013: e.T43205774A45893487.
  • Chen, M., Zheng, J., Wu, M., Ruan, R., Zhao, Q. and Wang, D., 2014. Genetic diversity and population structure of the critically endangered Yangtze finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis) as revealed by mitochondrial and microsatellite DNA. International journal of molecular sciences15(7), pp.11307-11323.

Anaïs is the founder of Whale Scientists. She is a PhD student at McGill University working on killer whale ecology and pollution. You can read more about her here.

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