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'River pigs' rarer than pandas

By Liu Xiangrui (China Daily)

13:52, January 30, 2012

Fishermen, scientists and green campaigners have joined forces to prevent the rare Yangtze finless porpoise from disappearing from Dongting Lake in Central China

YUEYANG, Hunan - He Daming may only have received eight months of education as a child, but he is smart enough to realize that the fate of the fishermen in his village is closely tied to that of the rare finless porpoise.

The 43-year-old, who has been fishing Dongting Lake in Hunan province since he was 11, recently handed out 2,000 copies of a letter he wrote urging fellow villagers to protect the endangered mammals.

"We used to regard them as river gods; we'd never hunt or hurt them," he said, explaining that they are seen as "guides" because they are usually spotted in areas where fish are in abundance.

"We all depend on fish to survive," he said. "If the lake environment worsens and there are fewer fish, the porpoises die and we won't be able to make a living."

Since April, He and another 10 friends have been patrolling the lake, hoping to protect the animal from illegal fishing techniques, such as electrofishing.

"These destructive methods kill all the life, including small fish, which are the main food source for finless porpoises. Sometimes the porpoises are injured or killed, too," said He, who has already persuaded several fishermen to be more eco-friendly.

Yet, fishermen alone cannot solve the problem. Studies show that the porpoises, which are found only in the Yangtze River and Poyang and Dongting lakes, have also been affected by pollution, busy water traffic, extreme weather conditions (mainly droughts) and the construction of hydropower projects.

A three-year field survey recently completed by the Institute of Hydrobiology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the international wildlife NGO, found about 1,000 finless porpoises, down from an estimated 1,800 in 2006.

The findings suggest the population is reducing by 6.4 percent every year, although the rate is much higher in Dongting Lake, where only about 120 now remain.

Although the animals have a history dating back more than 25 million years, Wang Ding, former deputy director of the institute, predicted that the species could be extinct in a decade if measures are not taken to protect them.

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