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Risso's dolphin at surface

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Dead sperm whale in The Wash, East Anglia, England. © CSIP-ZSL.

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Risso's dolphin © Andy Knight

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Fin whale (balaenoptera physalus) Three fin whales Gulf of California.

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A spinner dolphin leaping © Andrew Sutton/Eco2

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Orca (ID171) breaches off the coast of Scotland © Steve Truluck.

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Cashing in on China’s porpoises?

In a bid to try and avoid losing yet another species, China has initiated a scheme where people who report an injured or dead finless porpoise to the authorities can get a cash reward

Narrow-ridged finless porpoise (c) Grant Abel

The Yangtze finless porpoise is a sub-species of the narrow-ridged finless porpoise and is the world’s only freshwater porpoise, inhabiting as its name suggests, the Yangtze River. This little porpoise is unfortunately on a similar path to extinction as the now infamous baiji or Yangtze River dolphin, that was declared functionally extinct at the end of 2006. The baiji’s demise was rapid and shocking, going from some 6,000 individuals to extinct in only a matter of decades, and directly attributable to mankind.

The Yangtze finless porpoise runs the gauntlet of threats, from entanglement in fishing nets (especially gillnets) to habitat degradation, boat strikes and chemical and noise pollution and recent population estimates show a mere 1,000 individuals are left in the wild. Half the population live in the mainstem of the Yangtze river with the other half residing in Poyang Lake, an offshoot of the main river itself. Lake Poyang used to be the largest lake in China but the construction of a dam has reportedly reduced its size by 95%, massively reducing available habitat for the beleaguered porpoise. As a direct result of their declining numbers the Yangtze subspecies has recently been listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered. This change in threat status (it was previously classified as only endangered) is based on analysis of data for 279 stranded porpoises collected from the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River from 1978 onwards, which reveal that the porpoise population is experiencing an accelerating decline, and a further population decline of >80% is predicted within three generations. Recent survey results from late 2012 suggest that the population in the main Yangtze channel has halved since the previous survey in 2006, with initial estimates suggesting that there are now only around 500 individuals left in the mainstem compared to over 1,100 just six years earlier.

Perhaps the Chinese Government are hoping that this last ditch attempt to monitor the remaining animals will prove fruitful whilst providing some form of financial reward to local people. The amount of the reward will depend greatly on what is reported – for example smaller reward amounts will be for information or for the reporting of a dead porpoise whilst the higher amounts will go to people who have reported an injured or at risk individual and have tried to do something to help the porpoise before officials arrive.

It’s going to take nothing short of a small miracle to save the remaining Yangtze finless porpoises from extinction but every step should be seen as a positive move in that direction. The battle to save them is far from over and hopefully, this latest initiative will encourage more people to help save the few porpoises that still call the Yangtze River home.

About Nicola Hodgins

Policy Manager at WDC