A thousand miles in search of the finless porpoise
It is well-known that the Chinese river dolphin, also known as the Baiji, is functionally extinct, in other words: as good as gone forever. The freshwater finless porpoise (江豚), on the other hand, which like the Baiji also lives in China’s Yangtze river, is currently endangered and seems to be heading for the same fate. In November, a 40-day scientific expedition was launched to carry out a survey of finless porpoises in the Yangtze river, and a journalist from Star News (市场新报) from Anhui province was invited along to capture in prose the few moments when the finless porpoise was sighted in an environment that is gradually dispelling them to the verge of extinction.
In the first stage of the survey completed on 26 November, the expedition travelled 1,252 km back and forth between Yichang (宜昌) and Wuhan (武汉) on the Yangtze, all the while employing visual and acoustic equipment to monitor for any signs of the finless porpoise. In total in this period the finless porpoise was seen 39 times and heard (via acoustic equipment) 19 times. These make for depressing findings: a similar survey in 2006 observed the finless porpoise 116 times and heard it 50 times.
Yesterday, the journalist writes, the expedition entered the Anhui stage of the operation, where there is actually a designated protected zone for the finless porpoise. The survey team stopped at a village close to the river port at Daguan (大观区) in Anqing (安庆), Anhui province. Among the locals the journalist found what he described as a sense of reminiscence for what they affectionately called the “river pig” (江猪). When they were asked about the protection zone supposedly close by and where a good place would be to observe the porpoises, however, none of them had anything to say. Eventually the journalist was able to obtain some information on the way back to the boat from a local doctor, who told him that the area surrounding the docks in Anqing might be a good place to spot the porpoises.
So off they went to the docks, where ships were moving in and out and construction machinery were making a racket. Somewhat stupefied, the journalist wondered if this could possibly be the protection zone. Eventually he spotted a run-down sign covered with weeds that said “Anqing Finless Porpoise Protected Area.” This was indeed it, but there were no finless porpoises to be seen.
So the expedition set off 243 km down the Yangtze in Anhui, the main habitat of the finless porpoise in China. According to the local fishing industry, there should be about 260 finless porpoises in this stretch of the river. After some searching, the journalist and the expedition did sight the finless porpoise. Referring to himself in the third person, the journalist described it thus:
We were as before attentively watching the surface of the water, and our eyes were getting a bit tired. Just then, right behind the roll of a wave we suddenly saw the shadow of the finless porpoise, he was in the process of “cheerfully jumping about”, and then just a few seconds later, he was gone….The journalist hurriedly rowed a boat in pursuit, but to no avail. So the journalist calmed himself and pondered the picture that he was able to take.
After returning to the shore, the journalist talked again with locals in Anhui about the finless porpoise. “In the 1970s and ’80s,” one man remarked, “you could often see them swimming in large groups, frolicking about. But afterwards this sight become rarer and rarer.”