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Controversy erupts in China over the decision to move 14 Yangtze porpoises to ocean parks

Updated: Jul 8, 2021

Fourteen critically endangered wild Yangtze finless porpoises were recently captured in China’s protected areas and relocated to two ocean parks, ostensibly for the purposes of conservation - to develop captive breeding methodology and increase public awareness of the plight of the species.

The Yangtze finless porpoise is one of the world's rarest whales. This is an archive photo of a pod of porpoises in Tian-e-Zhou Oxbow Wetland Reserve.

(Image: 高宝燕 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=89812929)


The news sparked a nation-wide controversy and an outcry amongst the public. Conservation NGOs and scientists voiced their objections, pointing out that ocean parks’ true motivation is profit, and that no real breakthrough in captive breeding of porpoises by scientists has been done despite ten years of efforts. Even if the program turns out to be successful, the experts added, not only will the number of captive bred porpoises will be small, these captive bred individuals not be able to survive in the wild.


China is now undergoing an explosion in the building of ocean parks – according to an NGO China Cetacean Alliance, the number of such parks in the country went from 39 in 2015 to 82 in 2019, with dozens more currently under construction. More than 1,000 whales and dolphins, nearly all wild-caught, are kept there. Many are trained to take part in shows that draw huge crowds.


The Yangtze finless porpoise is one of the world’s rarest whales. Their number is estimated at just over a thousand, less than half of what it was in the 1990s. This small, shy species is now extinct from most of the Yangtze and the bulk of the remaining population survives in nature reserves in small oxbow lakes, as well as in two large lakes – Poyang (almost 500 individuals) and Dongting (around 100).


In China, the porpoise is known as “laughing angel” because of its smiling expression, and as “water panda”, due to the species’ rarity and symbolic status. It is also often referred to as “water pig.”


The species was numerous in the Yangtze up to the 1950s, but then hunting, pollution, dam construction, over fishing and increase in boat and ship traffic led to a collapse in their numbers. Now the Yangtze finless porpoise is a grade-1 nationally protected species, but its numbers continue to decline, although it appears that the rate has recently slowed down.


Eight of the porpoises were captured in Tian-e-zhou Oxbow Wetland Reserve in Hubei province, home to about a hundred individuals. It is unclear where the rest came from, some sources stated Hewangmiao Reserve (also in Hubei), as well as unspecified location(s) in Anhui Province. It appears that eight were transported to Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai in Guangdong Province, and six to Haichang Ocean Park in Shanghai.


Zhao Yimin of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, in his interview to The Paper, a leading Chinese on-line media portal, said that relying on wild populations for the recovery of this critically endangered species was “too risky”. Natural factors, such as extreme cold events or low water levels could wipe out the small, isolated wild porpoise populations.


Zhao sited an example of an extreme cold event in 2008 that killed a large number of porpoises, and added that the main anthropogenic factors leadings to the loss of habitat – dam construction, sand extraction and shipping, cannot not be brought under “immediate control”.


One scientist interviewed by www.chinanews.com agreed that involving ocean parks in conservation was necessary. He mentioned ageing facilities in existing research centers, fewer and fewer scientists working on porpoise conservation, and the increasing difficulty of obtaining research grants. He said simply that ocean parks have the money.


Chimelong Ocean Kingdom pledged to invest one million yuan annually for five years and construct a state of the art 2,000 cubic metre aquarium to house the porpoises.


However, Chinese conservationists point out that a dangerous precedent may be set - other ocean parks may also want to keep Yangtze porpoises, further depleting the already tiny and fragmented wild populations. They also point out that keeping porpoises in tanks, however spacious, restricts the animals’ natural patterns of movement. Also, the separation from their relatives at capture, causes long-term psychological trauma in these social and highly intelligent animals with strong family bonds.


The public also questioned the true motivation of ocean parks: “Will they prioritise conservation over profit?” said one netizen. “The porpoises will become profit-earning tools.”


Another point of concern is the possibility of ocean parks training porpoises to perform in shows. Chimelong Ocean Kingdom already offers visitors an orca show, a dolphin show, a sea lion show, and a beluga whale show. Haichang Ocean Park also runs an orca show.


Beluga theatre in Chimelong Ocean Kingdom theme park in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province. A show featuring trained beluga whales is shown here.

(Image: Ngchikit https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45839564)


What further damages the conservation credentials of Chimelong is that as well as staging orca shows, in 2017 the park launched China’s first orca breeding program. It immediately come under intense criticism from conservationists and animal welfare organisations. All nine of Chimelong’s orcas were wild-caught in Russia.


Both ocean parks have pledged that their Yangtze porpoises will not be trained for shows.


In interviews to the media, Chinese scientists openly questioned the practicality of the captive breeding of species of social whales. One said that the process is too slow to increase the numbers – only one calf is born at a time, and the periods of gestation and rearing of the young are both very long.


Other scientists pointed out that even though whales, such as orcas, do breed in captivity, captive-born individuals are incapable of surviving in the wild, because in captivity the young cannot be taught the essential skills - feeding, navigation, and social interaction. For this reason, captive-born individuals can never be released and, therefore, do not contribute to the recovery of the species’ numbers.


Experts also expressed doubt about the ocean parks’ ability to make a meaningful contribution to increasing the public’s awareness of the species and conservation. One opinion was that the parks ability to do so was “negligible”, adding that there was no need to keep wild animals in captivity for this purpose, because now people look up everything on-line.

Entrance to Whale Shark Aquarium in Chimelong Ocean Kingdom. Whale sharks can reach the length of over 18m and are the world's largest fish. Keeping them in captivity is controversial.

(Image: Ngchikit https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45839561)


Another point raised was the amount of stress that had been caused to wild porpoises during their capture. Estimates were made that in Tian-e-zhou Oxbow Wetland Reserve, in order to capture 8 porpoises suitable for captivity in terms of age, gender and health, at least 30 total captures must have been made. The official sources said that the genealogy of each animal was thoroughly researched before their capture, without providing any details on the methods used.


In addition, removing 8 individuals out of a population of about a hundred represents a considerable reduction in overall numbers. Moreover, the animals removed were at their reproductive peak, further undermining the health of the population.


The opinion on the need for captive breeding of Yangtze porpoises is divided.


Dai Nianhua of the Biological Resources Bureau at Jiangxi Academy of Sciences, stressed the urgent need for captive breeding. He told the Science and Technology Daily: “The number of porpoises living in the Yangtze is declining. We can only delay the extinction. We need to formulate a plan that reaches further into the future.”


However, others are more optimistic. Wang Ding, a hydrobiology researcher in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said that protecting the natural habitat, rather than moving porpoises into aquaria, was the right way to proceed. He pointed out that 5 porpoises entered the Tian-e-zhou Oxbow Wetland Reserve, in the 1990s, and the number is now over a 100.


Others, including volunteers who worked on grassroots projects such as removing illegal fishing nets, agreed, saying that measures such as the recent ten-year fishing ban on the Yangtze, combined with intensive grassroots conservation efforts by NGOs have been very effective in improving the quality of the habitat.


One clear message from the porpoise controversy is that the Chinese public and conservation organisations are not only active when it comes to protecting the environment, they do not shy away from making their voices heard.

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