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Relocation Remains the Last Hope for White-fin Dolphins

Helping white-fin dolphins escape their deteriorating natural habitat in the Yangtze River remains the last hope of saving the primitive species, a group of academicians believes.

With the world's only captive white-fin dolphin getting older in Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province, more and more people are aware that it is urgent to accelerate conservation work with the world's most endangered species by rescuing more wild dolphins from the busy navigation route of the Yangtze River, and moving them to a nature reserve.

An optimistic view holds that fewer than 100 white-fin dolphins, known in China as Yangtze River dolphins, exist in their only natural habitat, the Yangtze. The species have survived for 25 million years in China's longest river.

The Actual number of the "living fossil" is probably much fewer than that, said Zhu Zuoyan, member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). He added that any conservation work would be useless 10 years from now, when the remaining dolphins would be too few to sustain the species.

Yangtze River dolphins are on the list of the world's 12 most endangered animals. If no effective moves are made to save them, the species will be extinct in 20 years. The danger the dolphins face is much more serious than that of the Giant Panda.

CAS's research shows that it is impossible to avert the deteriorating environment for the Yangtze River dolphins in such limited time. The animals would constantly face the risks of serious pollution, busy waterways and rampant illegal fishing, if they continued to stay in the river.

"Relocation is the last hope for the dolphins," said a group of academicians from CAS and members of the Chinese Political Consultative Conference.

They are endeavoring to get government consent and to mobilize environmentalists to help with the dolphin protection work.

The experts prefer to move the dolphins to the Shishou Tian'ezhou White-Fin Dolphin Nature Reserve, which is a state-level Yangtze River dolphin reserve set up in Shishou, in central China's Hubei Province, in 1992.

The 21-km long river reserve used to be a course of the Yangtze River waterway. It has been protected from human disturbance and has abundant aquatic life.

The conservationists managed to move 10 cowfish to the reserve 10 years ago, a species listed in the second category of China's most endangered animals. Numbers have since increased to over 20. The cowfish's life cycle is similar to that of the Yangtze River dolphins.

The experts' advice has been taken by the Ministry of Agriculture, which has decided to launch a joint program with CAS to capture wild Yangtze River dolphins this autumn.

The experts said it is very difficult to catch the dolphins, since they swim very fast. This is one of the reasons why the dolphin Qi Qi has lived alone for 22 years without a mate in an aquarium run by a CAS subsidiary in Wuhan.

A recent physical examination found that Qi Qi's aging is getting more obvious. The natural life span of a white-fin dolphin is 25-30 years old. When the injured male dolphin was rescued by fisherman in 1980, he was under two years old. He was cured by aquarium specialists and became the world's first and the only Yangtze River dolphin in captivity.

Qi Qi has let thousands of visitors know what a white-fin dolphin looks like, and helped in various scientific experiments. Aquarium specialists say that Qi Qi's age is equal to a man in his 70s. He has already become one of the world's oldest dolphins in captivity. They intend to help him reach 30 years old.

(Xinhua News Agency June 15, 2002)


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