China: What is Causing the Death of Endangered Finless Porpoises?

By Oiwan Lam

More than a dozen Finless Porpoise corpses have been found in Dongting Lake [1] in Hubei and Hunan provinces since March 2012. Chinese micro-bloggers are keeping each other updated on the situation while trying to determine the reasons for the deaths of this endangered species, as the government is yet to confirm the death toll and put forward a rescue plan.

The Finless Porpoise [2] is one of the most endangered species in China. Information spreading online said [3] [zh] that there are fewer than 84 remaining in Dongting Lake. The large scale death of this endangered species should be national news, yet the state controlled media outlets have been downplaying this news and as yet no government authority is actively responding to the problem.

Magazine reporter Yang Jiang has been a consistent source of information regarding this issue, reporting [5] [zh] in microblogging website Sina Weibo:

"I have just confirmed with the Chairperson of the Yangtze Finless Porpoise Conservation Society [7], that twelve Finless Porpoise corpses have been found in Dongting Lake since March 3. The Society did not rule out the possibility that there were more corpses, with a number of online reports claiming that there were more than seventeen. The reason for their death is environmental pollution… At least seven of the dead are female. If this death rate continues, the extinction of Finless Porpoises in Dongting lake will be complete in less than a year."

Blogger Yongaiqiqi has gathered information from various sources, including newspapers and online reports, and found that there were more than thirteen reports on the discovery of Finless Porpoise bodies in 2012 and that only one report came from state controlled media :

"Now that the situation regarding the death of Finless Porpoises has become so devastating in Dongting Lake, why has the local authority not reported the situation to the Society? What is the reason? That they don’t know? Or that they want to hide the situation? I hereby urge the government to take responsibility and clarify the facts."

Blogger “Subject of the Empire” examined [9] [zh] the problem in detail and found that aside from the underlying ecological reasons, the Finless Porpoise might have been poisoned by snail fever prevention treatment:

"Regarding the death toll of the Finless Porpoise, in 2008, 2009 and 2010, there were 20, 19 and 12 deaths respectively. In three consecutive years, the death tolls were in double figures. We have to be aware of the fact that the total number of Finless Porpoises in China is less than the number of pandas. This death rate is already too high and too dangerous. In 2011, the recorded death toll reached 20. In 2012, in Dongting alone and in less than 40 days, 12 corpses have been found, with this figure only including those corpses discovered by fishermen. Since Finless Porpoises live together in family groups, the situation is probably even more serious.According to the Finless Porpoise expert Wang Ding from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the death toll may have reached 30. This is an alarming figure that the government and research organizations must pay attention to."

The ecological crisis in Dongting Lake is a known fact and the extinction threat to the Finless Porpoise is related to the breakdown of the ecological chain as a result of agricultural and excessive fishing activities due to lack of management by the fishery department. In addition, since the construction of the Three Gorges Dam [10], flooding has disappeared but a large area of the wetland has been exposed. Then the sand of the lakebed was dug up, creatures from the lakebed could no longer survive and the ecological chain has been broken…

The death of Finless Porpoises is not an accident. When humans are competing for food with Finless Porpoises, we kill them indirectly by breaking their food chain. Ten years ago, there were more than 120 river creatures for Finless Porpoises to eat, now less than 20 remain.

I noticed in a Hunan TV news report today, they interviewed a government official from Yueyang fishery department regarding the large scale death of Finless Porpoises. From his experience he speculated that the incident was related to the poisoning of the Oncomelainia Snail in the Lake to prevent Schistosomiasis [11] disease (Snail fever). The Finless Porpoises might have poisoned by the dead fishes. This may be the most direct cause of their death. Such news is so frustrating. This is not the first time the government authority has messed up. But they did not learn from their mistakes. I reviewed the information and found out that, back in 2004, following the national conference on the prevention of snail fever, the Yueyang authority dumped 5,000 tons of poison to kill the Oncomelainia snail and poisoned six porpoises in one month.

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