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Watching over and coexistence: Stories of wild animals and their protectors amid extreme drought

Updated: Jan 3, 2023 By Li Jun and Yang Biyu (Jiangxi Daily) Print
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As the only Chinese member of the Living Lakes Network, Poyang Lake is Asia’s largest wintering ground for migratory birds. It also offers habitats and shelter for Yangtze finless porpoises and many other rare and endangered species.

Due to the extreme drought that started in July in the Yangtze River Basin, the lake has suffered the severest water shortage crisis since hydrological records for it were started in 1951. For a period of time, it even saw its surface area shrink by over 90 percent.

The extreme drought conditions in the lake have greatly reduced the habitat for wild animals in the area. Are these animals still alright? As winter continues, we have circumnavigated the lake to listen to the stories about the harmonious coexistence of people that watch over the lake and the animals.

For the "smiling angel"

Photo shows a Yangtze finless porpoise. [Photo/Xu Nanping]

“Look! That’s a Yangtze finless porpoise!” Braving the freezing wind that penetrates people’s bones in December, we could hardly open our eyes as we moved forward in waters around Piaoyatou, an area of the lake around Songmen Mountain. Mr. Pan, however, spotted the porpoise soon after it came into sight. Following the direction he pointed out for us, we saw a porpoise leap out of the water. But it soon went out of sight, leaving only ripples.

The full name of Mr. Pan is Pan Ximing. He is a member of the law enforcement team for fishing management in Yongxiu county. Since late September, he has been on duty in the area. “When I came, I only wore a short-sleeved shirt. It has been almost100 days,” he said.

The Yangtze finless porpoise has a very round head. The shape of its mouth makes people feel as if it were smiling. Because of this, it is often dubbed the "smiling angel".

It is now the only cetacean living in the Yangtze River. It’s an important index species that can illustrate the achievements in Yangtze conservation and the health of the river.

Poyang Lake is referred to as the “last fortress” for the Yangtze finless porpoise, as half of the species’ population inhabits it. Stretching for over 40 square kilometers, the Piaoyatou area is where experts frequently spot the porpoise. The severe shrinkage of Poyang’s area poses a grave threat to the animal.

“The water level of the lake went down too fast. We all worry that the Yangtze finless porpoise may be stranded in shallow waters,” Pan said.

On Sept 23 when Pan patrolled the lake with his colleagues, tips of some submerged rocks had been found above the surface of the water, which suggests that the porpoise may be stranded at any time. Since then, instead of patrolling the lake twice a week as they previously did, they have chosen to stay on duty around the clock. Aside from patrolling personally, they also use drones to help watch over the porpoises to ensure that none will get into trouble without being found.

“Our eight colleagues work on two shifts. At the very beginning, we ate and lived on the boat, though we built up makeshift houses on the shore some days later,” Pan said.

“In dog days, the big sun in the shore area made us dizzy. At night, we had to suffer mosquitos. It was so hot and stuffy that we sometimes failed to fall asleep for a whole night,” he added.

In October, the sharp decreases of the temperature and cool wind from the lake often made us tremble, as we didn’t have time to go back home for some warm clothes. We worked on shift for over 20 days and nights. During that time, we always ate instant noodles, which we found increasingly difficult to swallow.

Despite the difficulties, Pan and his colleagues have never thought about quitting. “We are guardians of the Yangtze finless porpoise! As long as the water level does not rise to the level that is completely safe for them, we will not stop patrolling around the clock,” he said resolutely.

Also working in the Piaoyatou area, Zhan Boshan from the law enforcement team for fishing management from Changdu county shoulders another important task.

Because of the large concentration of Yangtze finless porpoise in the area, they not only face the risk of being stranded, but also food shortages. Following thorough discussions with experts and careful preparations, Zhan led over 30 fishermen to the area on November 4 to help dozens of the porpoises migrate.

After accepting the task, all of them took it very seriously. They surveyed the area for two days, using various apparatuses. Aside from metering the speed of the water flow and the depth of the water, they prepared nets with big and small meshes.

Before they went into action, they designated specific people for certain tasks, including driving the boat, casting the fishing net, capturing, transportation and medical care. To avoid injuring the porpoises with their fingernails, those tasked with picking up the animal were all asked to cut their nails as much as possible.

In the operation, once a porpoise was picked up, it was immediately put onto a stretcher and then carried to a water tank by several sturdy men, so that the breath of the animal would not be affected.

There were some experts standing by. They checked the heath of each porpoise to ensure that it could be transported to a deep-water area safely and soundly.

“The great difficulty in the work is to make them gather together. We spent over 20 days in completing the task,” Zhan said. Once their persistent efforts that had lasted for a whole day ended in vain. Because of the turbulent water, the hungry and tired team saw porpoises escape from the net they had meticulously cast.

“Do you think the efforts were worth it?” we asked.

“They were worth it! We hope that our future generations can also see the Yangtze finless porpoise. We should unswervingly prevent it from becoming just a legend,” Zhan answered without any hesitation.

There are now 203 teams devoted to fish management in Poyang Lake. Many of them are just like Pan and Zhan. They safeguard the “smiling angel” silently.

The preliminary results from the 2022 scientific investigations for the Yangtze finless porpoise organized by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs show that the porpoise has seen its wild population rise from 1,012 in 2017. The number of the animals has clearly increased in the Hukou sections of the Yangtze and some other sections. What’s more, more mother and baby porpoises have been spotted, indicating that the species’ population will further recover.

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