Meeting the last of the Yangtze Dolphins

Baiji dolphin

Situated at the crossroads of central China, and home to the world’s third longest river, the mighty Yangtze, Wuhan maintains a unique balance of being a modern metropolis with a green backyard. For centuries, the Yangtze River has operated as the hub for trade and transport in Wuhan.

A survey conducted by the Word Wildlife Fund found that there are fewer than 800 alive today, resulting in the species being labelled as critically endangered in 2013.

Baiji dolphin
Baiji dolphin

Apart from serving as the means of livelihood for thousands of people, the river was also home to two distinct species of dolphin-the Yangtze finless porpoise and the Baiji dolphin. The year 2006 however, saw the extinction of the Baiji, leaving the finless porpoise as the lone remnant of its species in the river.

Known colloquially as “river pigs”, due to their abundance, the numbers of finless porpoise have decreased dramatically over the last few decades. A survey conducted by the Word Wildlife Fund found that there are fewer than 800 alive today, resulting in the species being labelled as critically endangered in 2013. Due to this, the wetland surrounding the river bend branching from the Yangtze River which hosts the dolphins became a protection zone in 1992.

A chance encounter with Dr. Sara Platto, an Italian researcher working as a foreign expert at the Institute of Hydrobiology led me to discover a gem hidden within the banks of the Yangtze; the finless porpoise natural reserve.

Situated within walking distance of the ever bustling Grand Ocean Mall, the natural reserve acts as a research institute combined with a breeding program aimed at attempting to save the finless porpoise from extinction.

The reserve acts as a haven for the dolphins, protecting them from detrimental human activities such as overfishing, shipping and underwater construction, all of which disrupt the dolphins’ natural lifestyle. 

Dr Platto was kind enough to offer us an invitation to the aquarium where 8 of these dolphins are being kept for research and breeding purposes. With a sleek round head, glistening eyes, and the lack of a fin so often associated with its species, the finless porpoise is a marvel to behold. The aquarium’s exceptional design of wide paneled observation decks gave us an opportunity to get an up close and personal look at this exceptional creature.

The first thing I noticed about the dolphins is that each one of them had an individual personality. Dr Platto explained that although shy, the species is quite playful and fiercely intelligent. At numerous intervals, many of the dolphins let curiosity get the better of them and proceeded to come right up against the observation glass behind which I was standing to take a better look at me, gazing with intent at the new arrival at their home.

Watching the dolphins cut through the waters of their pool at breakneck pace and yet all the while maintaining their graceful demeanor had me captivated for longer than I would’ve expected.

I was brimming with questions regarding the nature of this beautiful creature and the staff at the reserve was more than happy to answer all my queries. I learnt that the finless porpoise have lived on earth for 25 million years but sadly, their numbers are decreasing at the rate of 14% every year. Furthermore, the dolphins require natural waters for breeding and scientists have tried unsuccessfully for years to bred them in captivity. Their efforts have been ineffectual until recently when a finless porpoise was born in Hubei, in a semi aqueous reserve for the first time in the world. This development is not only splendid for the healthy survival of the species, but marks a new chapter in the history of aquatic research, conservation and breeding of the the dolphins. 

The finless porpoise is a jewel in the crown of the Yangtze and the reserve at the Wuhan Institute of Hydrobiology is a commendable effort to ensure that the dolphins remain part of Wuhan’s present, rather than its past. It’s highly recommended that anyone with an interest in this estuary creature visits the reserve and witnesses first-hand what remains of one of the original dwellers of the mighty Yangtze River.