ESSAY

We must safeguard the web of life and care about the other living species that we share this planet with. Pygmy tarsiers eat and host bugs that we’ve seen at home — insects, spiders, lizards, bedbugs, lice, fleas, roundworms, and tapeworms. The vaquitas are preyed upon by large sharks and killer whales, keeping them away from us. But only 10 vaquitas are left and in their absence, the diet of sharks and whales may change. A tiger in the wild indicates that the forest it inhabits is healthy and diverse. As of now, there are 3,900 tigers in the wild globally, and more than twice as many (8,000) in captivity. By protecting the web of life, we build a kinder world for everyone.

“You never once harmed us, you never once asked for anything, but because of us you are heading for extinction.” ~Green Source Environmental Association

“Of the 2.75 million metric tonnes of plastic waste deposited into the ocean by rivers each year, 1.5 million, or 55%, flows out of the Yangtze.” ~Luke Christou, Verdict

Why is the Yangtze finless porpoise often called the Giant Panda of the water? Answer: Because both of them are rare. The difference is, the Yangtze finless porpoise is critically endangered. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, only some 1,000 finless porpoises are alive (others say it’s a range between 500 to 1,800).

Hopefully, the porpoise will survive like the giant panda, which was also once ranked as critically endangered. But through conservation efforts, their numbers grew and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) leveled up the Giant Panda’s rank to “vulnerable”.

Fishermen in the Yangtze nicknamed the porpoise “river pig” because of its round body. They once revered it like a god. Many fisherman’s lives and boats were saved by the finless porpoises, who warned them of a pending storm by repeatedly making small leaps out of the water, within their sight. The fishermen would tie up their boats, and their lives and property were spared thanks to the finless porpoises’ warning. In good weather, if they saw a finless porpoise, they’d follow it. For where the porpoise would go, there the fish would be.

Like humans, this porpoise needs to go out of the water for a while to breathe. Above water, they twirl like a ballerina to see what’s going on around them. Newborns also spin underwater. At other times they use their tails to get around, like an acrobat. The finless porpoise Neophocaena asiaeorientalis lacks a dorsal fin (the fin on its back) and has no beak. At full growth, it’s 6.2 feet long.

In a rescue area, a scientist will call a finless porpoise to go above water for food. The porpoise will first kiss the human’s hand, and when given food, will squeak and extend a flipper-like handshake. It’s as though it’s saying “Thank you”. You can also see how cute they are when they swim here.

The finless porpoise was born with a permanent grin. China calls it the “smiling angel”. When six finless porpoises were kept in a huge tank for study, a volunteer peeked at them through an observation window. Two porpoises lightheartedly tilted their bodies to see the humans, another greeting.

This porpoise is very intelligent and sensitive. Scientists equate its intelligence to a four-year-old child. They can discern your feelings, and if you’re happy, they’re happy too. Their brainpower is comparable to a gorilla’s, as well.

The finless porpoise is endemic to China’s freshwater Yangtze River, the longest river in a single country, the longest river in Asia, and the third-largest river in the world. The Yangtze is China’s main waterway, and one-third of the nation’s people live in its basin, where China’s great granary is located.

The Yangtze emanates from the fiercely cold, mountainous Tanggula meltwaters in Tibet, and flows some 3,915 miles downward, near Shanghai, in the East China Sea. Four freshwater lakes are connected to it.

The finless porpoise swims in Yangtze’s middle and lower reaches, in Poyang Lake, in East China’s Jiangxi Province, and Dongting Lake in Central China’s Hunan Province.

Hope and challenges

The finless porpoises once swam freely through the Yangtze. But four decades ago, industrialization began and over time, limited the porpoise’s space to three small areas. The finless porpoises numbers are dwindling and may become extinct in 10 years, the WWF says unless something is done.

When a hydroelectric plant and a dam were built, this further endangered the porpoise. The water decreased in depth and surface area, and food fell short in Poyang Lake. The finless porpoise’s habitat is gradually decreasing, weakening, and fragmenting.

There is hope, and there are challenges. In 1993 there were 2,700 finless porpoises. Their numbers were cut in half to 1,040 individuals from 2006 to 2012. Since then, the rate of decline has slowed down with 1,012 individuals in 2017.

Much is known about this porpoise, but not enough to save it. The ecology of the finless porpoise must be examined. Scientists need to know what harms its ecosystem and must learn its biology in order to hasten breeding and reproduction.

Nowhere to hide

These porpoises aren’t safe in the river. Zhang Xinqiao, species project manager, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), said the species’ days in the river may be numbered. “They have nowhere to hide. As long as danger exists, such as a further deterioration of natural habitat, it’s very likely their numbers could drastically decrease again.”

Some groups like Synchronicity Earth, The University College London, and the Institute of Zoology/Zoological Society of London have been studying threats to the finless porpoise and its ecosystem, counting its numbers regularly, interviewing local fishermen, and cooperating with local NGOs for knowledge and understanding.

With targeted information, conservation efforts can directly address the finless porpoise’s circumstance. For now, lack of knowledge disallows making any clear strategy to boost species recovery.

Another challenge; this porpoise reproduces slowly, and only lives for 20 years. They’re breeding, but total numbers continue to lessen. At this rate, the finless porpoise could be extinct sooner than later.

Some known threats are “the usual suspects” that include:

  1. Pollution. After China re-opened to the world, people’s wealth skyrocketed, as did air and water pollution due to agriculture and domestic activities. The Dutch research group Ocean Cleanup said 55% of ocean pollution globally originates from the Yangtze River.

  2. Industrialization soared since the 1990s which led to the following:

  1. Wastewater. Industrial wastewater, ship garbage, and chemical fertilizers cause habitat destruction.

  2. Sand mining. Amid extensive urbanization, sand mining had a complementary increase. The sand was used to make building materials such as glass and concrete. The best quality sand for these didn’t come from deserts but from freshwater rivers and lakes. In China, many megacities mined sand from Lake Poyang, the largest lake in China.

  3. Acid rain. Human behavior causes acid rain. With industrialization, many chemicals are released into the air, such as fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas), and chemical compounds (sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides). High in the air, they mix and react with water, oxygen, and other chemicals. In this way, acid rain and other acidic pollutants are formed, further degrading the earth’s natural habitats.

  1. Three Gorges Dam is the biggest dam and hydroelectric plant in the world. It was built from 1994 to 2012, in the habitat of the baiji dolphin, which led to their becoming functionally extinct in 2006. The dam also affected ecosystem functions in Poyang Lake, the largest freshwater lake in China and the most important habitat for the Yangtze finless porpoise. The dam is, slowly depreciating Poyang Lake’s waters.

  1. Ships and boats. River traffic increased with the building of the dam, resulting in cargo ship noise that agitates aquatic life. A river ecosystem with boat and ship movements can either injure or kill finless porpoises through collision.

A study by Marine biologist Danuta Wisniewska, Aarhus University, Denmark, revealed that noise from ships caused stress to seven porpoises, all participants of her study. Amid the noise, they made shorter and fewer dives, caught far less prey, and when loud or fast boats passed nearby, they stopped echolocating (a way to find distant prey through sounds). Echolocation is one way that porpoises “see” and without it, it’s as though they’re blind. The porpoise makes one of the cutest sounds ever, and you can hear it here.

  1. Overfishing. This reduces the normal supply of prey of finless porpoises. Also, many finless porpoises have died as bycatch of fishing gear. Some fishermen use illegal methods such as electro-fishing and gillnets that porpoises get caught in, and may be electrocuted, or die from suffocation since the porpoise needs to breathe the air above the waters.

Nature reserves

A bioacoustics and behavior laboratory is studying the finless porpoises’ underwater vocalizations at a nature reserve, where they study their hearing and the impact of underwater noise on them.

Hubei Province. In the 1990s, some 40 finless porpoises were brought to a lake in the Tianezhou Oxbow Nature Reserve, Hubei province. This curving lake has a stream that links it to the Yangtze River. As of 2019, porpoise numbers doubled to 80 individuals.

Jiangsu Province. The following has been done in this province, namely:

  1. Two protected areas were established for the finless porpoise in Nanjing and Jiangsu cities.

  2. Since 2017, some 50 finless porpoises have been living in Nanjing.

  3. Fishing boat routes were adjusted to avoid the finless porpoises’ protected areas.

  4. Construction to cross the river was designed to cross far from the Yangtze finless porpoises’ protected waters.

  5. A 10-year fishing ban was imposed as of January 1, 2021, around the Yangtze River Basin including Hunan, Hubei, and Jiangsu.

These efforts led to the improvement of the ecological environment along the Yangtze River, Yang Guang, vice chairman of the Science and Technology Committee of China Wildlife Conservation Association said.

In sum, the Yangtze finless porpoises are doing well due to protective measures. But overall, efforts have led to decreasing the rate of loss of these porpoises, rather than growing their numbers.

Artificial breeding

Yangtze finless porpoises have been bred artificially, with debatable results. From 2005 and 2019, only four Yangtze finless porpoises that were born in captivity have survived to maturity. Six calves died within 100 days.

The first artificially bred Yangtze finless porpoise was Tao Tao, born in 2005. In 2019, Tao Tao gave birth to a male calf named YYC. Next, porpoise Bei Bei was born. At age four, she was released into the Tian’ezhou Nature Reserve. Here, she must adapt to the protected lake before experts can release her into the wild. The fourth porpoise, F7c, was born in captivity in 2018.

Recently, local scientists were dismayed that some porpoises were moved supposedly with the intention of finding a protected area where they won’t be crowded. However, one-third of them ended up being used in aquariums and dolphin shows to entertain people instead of being kept in captivity for study, conservation, and growth.

Initially, it was claimed that this largest relocation for the 1,000 or so Yangtze finless porpoise was needed to reduce the risk of remaining porpoises becoming overcrowded.

However, a source said that two porpoises were brought to the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, Guangdong. Another four went to the Haichang Ocean Park, Shanghai. Conservationists note that both parks have a reputation for treating animals harshly, and animal welfare activists repeatedly criticized these aquariums for their cruel treatment of animals.

Ecological contribution

The finless porpoise in the wild directly affects the wellbeing of humans who rely on the Yangtze for their needs and quality of life. Finless porpoises play a major role in keeping their environment healthy. They participate in the overall balance of the river that they inhabit. We can discern the health of an ocean by its presence.

As earlier mentioned, legend says the finless porpoise warns fishermen when heavy winds are coming. They also help people know if the amount of fish in their habitat is declining. And they are easy to love, especially when they are spinning. Tourism is bolstered by the presence of porpoises.

Everyone, animals, and people stand to benefit from a healthy river, and porpoises keep the river and its adjoining lakes clean and balanced.

“The situation of the finless porpoise actually reflects the situation of the Yangtze River ecosystem,” said Wang Ding, finless porpoise expert, Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

It is my hope that now that you’ve read this essay, you can tell yourself that you now have a porpoise in life.