The finless porpoise is a lovely and smart creature, and the only surviving mammal to call the Chinese river home.
Finless porpoises have been living in China's longest river – the Yangtze – for more than 25 million years. But now the species is fighting for its survival… and the country is lending a hand.
The number of finless porpoises has shrunk to a little more than 1,000 in the wild, according to scientific research released by the Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Affairs in 2017.
The number is lower than that of the giant panda.
Experts say the threat of extinction for the porpoise within the next five to 10 years is looming large.
"Human activities are making life difficult for finless porpoises in the Yangtze River. Climate change, busy shipping traffic, over-fishing, port construction, and sand excavation in the river have all been blamed for the current state of the species," said Wang Kexiong, a Researcher at the Institute of Hydrobiology under Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Efforts to save the ancient species from extinction have started for years.
Relocating the mammals to special zones along their natural habitat is a proven, although temporary, method.
China has built three natural reserves in traffic-free areas of the Yangtze River.
The porpoises are relocated to the reserves when they're found injured.
So far, 120 reside there.
"It's just a temporary method. The most important thing is to restore the ecology of the Yangtze River. So all the fish can have a better environment to live. We need to keep a balance of economic development and eco-environment," Wang said.
Finless porpoises are on top of the Yangtze River's food chain. But food is becoming scarce as more river fish die off.
China introduced a fishing ban in key areas of the river on January 1st, 2020. Nearly all types of fishing have been banned in 332 conservation areas in the Yangtze River Basin for the next 10 years. The fishing ban will be expanded to all natural waterways of the river and its major tributaries from no later than January 1st, 2021.
"I'm quite confident. A similar ban has been carried out over the past three years in the Hubei city of Yichang. More fish and fish spawn can be seen there now. As long as we are adamant, it will work," said Cao Wenxuan, an academic at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
But there is some hope.
This year, residents have sighted finless porpoises playing in the river in Wuhan, Hubei Province, and Nanjing, Jiangsu Province several times.
Experts have said this shows protection work is showing encouraging results.
The Baiji dolphin was declared "functionally extinct" – meaning it no longer plays a role in the local ecosystem – in 2007 in the Yangtze River. This was followed by the Chinese paddlefish, declared functionally extinct this year in the same waters. One can only hope the same fate doesn't befall the finless porpoise.