The finless porpoise, known as the "Smiling Angel of the Yangtze River" in China, was once on the brink of extinction. But in recent years, photography enthusiasts have noticed that they have many more chances to capture the porpoise jumping out of water in the Yangtze – sometimes in flock, sometimes mothers with their babies.
The figures back up the 'eye test' – in 2022, a study led by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs shows that the population of finless porpoise has now increased to 1,249.
Wang Ding, research professor of Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), calls it a "turning point" in the preservation of the finless porpoise.
Devoted to the job for over 40 years, Wang witnessed the porpoises's numbers decline from over 3,000 to about only 1,000 around the turn of the century – making it one of the world's most endangered species.
"It means we do not only stop the decreasing trend, but the number of the animal has started to increase, which is a good sign for the future of the Yangtze River finless porpoise," Wang tells CGTN.
But the turning point wasn't easy to achieve. It came through decades of efforts by Chinese scientists.
A photo of the Yangtze River finless porpoise, known as the "Smiling Angel" in China. /CFP Photo
Three measures of conservation
The conservation of the finless porpoise started as early as in 1978, during a time when China was witnessing fast-speed development after carrying out the reform and opening-up policy. Wang and his fellow scientists had gone through a few very difficult decades while more attention was on development rather than ecological protection.
The finless porpoise mainly feed upon the fish in the Yangtze River. However, the heavy fishing activities in the river seriously exhausted the fishery resources back in the 1990s and early 2000s. The living environment was also heavily affected by various human activities along the river.
That is when Wang and his fellow scientists struggled on to insist on the protection of the animals, and set up the three-measure protection system for reserving the porpoise: in situ conservation; ex situ conservation; and captive breeding.
In situ conservation is protecting the animal in their natural habitat, while ex situ means relocating the aquatic mammals into other areas.
Staff carry a finless porpoise for physical examination before relocating to natural reserve in Jiangxi Province on February 14, 2023. /CFP Photo
"We chose some places which environment is very much similar to the mainstream of the Yangtze River, the so-called oxbow," says Wang. This oxbow used to be a section of the main river, before being cut off by erosion; it still provides a very similar, but quieter, environment for the mammals.
In the 1990s, Wang participated in the relocation of the first group of five finless porpoises to the Tian-e-zhou Oxbow, or Swan Oxbow. It turned out to be a very successful attempt. The porpoise survived well and started to reproduce naturally.
At the suggestion of the scientists, the area was set up as a natural reserve for the protection of the porpoise by the Chinese government in 1992. In the following year, based on the studies of the scientists, more natural reserves were set up, where the finless porpoise can live and reproduce freely in the wild.
Alongside the in-situ and ex-situ conservation, small-scale captive breeding has also been carried out for studies and education, helping the conservation of the mammals in the wild.
The Great Protection of the Yangtze River
It took decades of effort from Wang and his colleagues, but it paid off – and set an example. In recent years, ecological environment protection has been highlighted as one of China's most important aims.
In 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping said at a meeting that restoring the ecological environment of the Yangtze River should be "an overwhelming task," and no large-scale development should be allowed along the river for a long period in the future.
A mother finless porpoise jumping out of the water on Yangtze River in Yichang City, Hubei Province. /CFP
Since then, restoring the ecological environment of the Yangtze River became a national strategy. From 2020, a 10-year fishing ban was imposed; the following year, a new law for the protection of the Yangtze was put into force.
Green development has also been highlighted and prioritized as China tries to promote the transformation of the economic and social development. Greenness is set to become the defining feature of the country in the new era.
For Wang and his colleagues, their decades of efforts have now seen much more support compared to the thorny beginning.
Hao Yujiang, associated professor of the Institute of Hydrobiology, is a student of Wang Ding, who has also spent a lot of time on the Yangtze River, or at the natural reserves. He said besides the ideology of development and the ensuite legislations, the public awareness has also changed significantly.
"In the past, not so many people cared about the protection of an animal in the river," said Hao. He said not only the public, even some local officials did not realize the importance of species reservation back then. "But now, more and more Chinese people are keen on the reservation of the nature."
Back to the wild
Though only a small number of the porpoise were raised in captive breeding, Wang said their final goal is for all of them to return to the wild – their natural home, the Yangtze River.
"We have to make them learn the ability to survive in the wild. For example, they have to learn the skills to catch fish in a bigger river, and they have to learn to adapt into the wild environment," explains Wang. He told us that even for those born and raised in the oxbow, their final destination is the Yangtze River as well.
"We have already started to test," says Wang. He has just returned from a study in the field, a small oxbow where they keep a few number of porpoise and train them to adapt into the wild environment.
"We will release them back into the river pretty soon," said Wang. "And then maybe in the future not far away, we will release our animals born in activity back into the wild."
A long-term task that requires efforts of generations
At the age of 64, Wang has spent his whole career on the protection of the Yangtze River finless porpoise.
"This is the only thing in my professional career," he tells CGTN. "There is nothing else more important than the conservation of the finless porpoise in my life."
He recalled the first time he witnessed a mother porpoise give birth to her first baby in 2005, one of the most touching and unforgettable moments in his life.
"One of our animals in captivity was giving birth. She was very nervous, and I was also very nervous," Wang says. It took the porpoise more than seven hours to give birth, and Wang and his colleagues spent the whole night without sleep on the bank of the pool, trying to calm her down, and feed her with food.
"Finally, the baby and the mother established a very close relationship, and the mother started to take care of the baby. It was very impressive for me."
It is a moment of excitement shared by all researchers of finless porpoise. But there is sadness, too, when some of the animals are lost.
"It's really sad when you see life leave you and you can’t do much to help," said Hao. Being a teacher of zoology in university, he learnt about the endangered animal back then. He wanted to do something to save the baiji, or river dolphin, so he recommended himself to Professor Wang Ding, and joined his team, though he soon realized that it was too late and he could not do anything to save the baiji.
At the same time, he realized that the finless porpoise was suffering from a similar stress and threat to the baiji, so he threw himself into the work.
Hao's students have joined in. Hao told CGTN Europe there are at least 10 institutes working on protection and research of the finless porpoise. Research branches including ecologists, physiologists, geneticists and acoustics. Every year, many students apply for positions opening in the research group.
"It's definitely a long journey, and there are moments of emotions and sadness," said Hao. "But it's also interesting, meaningful. I really love this work."
Concerning the 2022 survey, Professor Wang told CGTN Europe that the number 1,249 is still not a safe number for the animal, but it means hope.
It probably requires long-term efforts to restore the environment, as well as to bring the porpoise back from the brink of extinction – but fortunately, Wang's team of scientists is ready for the task. (CGTN)
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