Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Saving China's threatened finless porpoise

By David McKenzie, CNN
updated 7:02 PM EDT, Thu June 20, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Researchers in China are working to protect the finless porpoise from extinction
  • They're stouter than their dolphin cousins and rarer than China's giant panda
  • Surveys show there are around one thousand of the animals left in Chinese waters
  • Pollution, overfishing, and intensive development on the Yangtze are being blamed

Wuhan, China (CNN) -- Professor Kou Zhangbing conducts a health check. He tenderly calls the patient over with a tap of his hand, checks tongue and teeth for injuries, eyes for mood, and skin for scratches. As a treat, he hands out a salted fish.

"The most important thing we can do is to keep them healthy," he says.

Kou is one of a handful of Chinese scientists trying to save the finless porpoise, a freshwater species found in the Yangtze River. Rarer than China's giant panda, this famed species now teeters on the brink of extinction.

Recent surveys suggest that there are a mere thousand animals left, down dramatically from similar surveys conducted just six years ago.

Dolphin locates rare torpedo from 1880s
See how dolphin mourns baby
Divers rescue entangled dolphin

"If proper measures aren't taken they will be extinct in 10 years, but to be honest, we only have five years to take action," said Zhang Xinqiao of the World Wildlife Fund.

Professor Kou and his colleagues research the rare mammal in a series of deep blue pools at the Institute for Hydrobiology in Wuhan. They are trying to understand these curious creatures and possibly breed them for the wild.

"I spend more time with them than with my family," said Kou, "They have become an indispensable part of my life."

It's mating season, so they dance underwater and act a little strange. Occasionally, a porpoise swims right up to the viewing glass and all but presses its face against it. The porpoise's face is set in a permanent quizzical smile. Dark and forward-facing eyes carefully monitor the movements of its visitors.

Porpoises are smaller and stouter than their dolphin cousins; they have shorter beaks, and live in smaller groups.

Those groups could be getting even smaller in the wild. Asia's longest river is also one of its most polluted. Scientists estimate that about 800 million tons of wastewater is dumped into the Yangtze every year. Pollution, overfishing, and intensive development on the Yangtze have all combined to push the porpoise near extinction.

"All of these human activities have destroyed the natural habitat of the finless porpoise, taking away their food supply and even injuring and killing them directly," said Zhang.

He said the prospect of survival in the Yangtze is bleak, but he clings onto hope for the species.

That hope, such as there is, can be found West of Wuhan in Tian-e-Zhou oxbow lake. Once part of the Yangtze, the lake was formed from a bend in the river and then separated from the main stream.

"This is the best chance we have to keep the species alive," said Gao Daobin, an official in charge of the park. "We only have this animal in China and kids will start asking questions when they learn about it. They will ask 'why did it go extinct?'"

It's no idle fear. The Baiji dolphin, a regal animal with its trademark pointed beak, went functionally extinct in the Yangtze in 2006. Scientists believe there may be individual animals in the murky water, but it could never sustain the species.

So the finless porpoise is the last remaining freshwater cetacean left in China.

Gao shows us a breeding pen separated from the lake by just a net. A handler drops individual fish into the mouth of the captive porpoises. They have to make sure to give exactly the right nutrients. They will be released into the lake, where the fewer than 40 porpoises could represent their last stand.

"Nobody cared about them in the past, but attitudes are changing. Now, if they go extinct, all of our years of work will be meaningless," said Gao.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Despite China's inexorable economic rise, the U.S. is still an indispensable ally, especially in Asia. No one knows this more than the Asian giant's leaders, writes Kerry Brown.
updated 6:59 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
The new U.S. deal with China on greenhouse gases faces enormous challenges in both countries. Jonathan Mann explains.
updated 10:38 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
For the United States and China to announce a plan reducing carbon emissions by almost a third by the year 2030 is a watershed moment for climate politics on so many fronts.
updated 3:26 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
China shows off its new stealth fighter jet, but did it steal the design from an American company? Brian Todd reports.
updated 8:01 PM EST, Mon November 10, 2014
Airshow China in Zhuhai provides a rare glimpse of China's military and commercial aviation hardware.
updated 8:14 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
A new exchange initiative aims to bridge relations between the two countries .
updated 12:51 AM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
Xi and Abe's brief summit featured all the enthusiasm of two unhappy schoolboys forced to make up after a schoolyard dust-up.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Mon November 10, 2014
Maybe you've decided to show your partner love with a new iPhone. But how about 99 of them?
updated 9:19 PM EST, Sun November 2, 2014
Can China's Muslim minority fit in? One school is at the heart of an ambitious experiment to assimilate China's Uyghurs.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is one of thousands of Americans learning Chinese.
updated 12:00 AM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou says he needs to maintain good economic ties with China while trying to keep Beijing's push for reunification at bay.
updated 1:28 AM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Chinese drone-maker DJI wants to make aerial photography drones mainstream despite concerns about privacy.
updated 1:18 AM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
A top retired general confesses to taking bribes, becoming the highest-profile figure in China's military to be caught up in war on corruption.
updated 10:42 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
China sends an unmanned spacecraft to the moon and back but is country following an outdated recipe for superpower status?
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Full marks for ingenuity: Students employ high-tech gadgets worthy of a spy movie to pass national exam.
updated 1:26 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Confucius Institutes seek to promote Chinese language and culture but some have accused them of "cultural imperialism."
updated 11:11 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G wants everyone to know that he's not a foreign agitator trying to defy the Chinese Communist Party.
ADVERTISEMENT