Critically Endangered porpoise shows signs of recovery


After decades of seemingly irreversible decline, Yangtze Finless Porpoise has been showing signs of recovery.

Results from the latest census conducted by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs show that the population of the Critically Endangered cetacean has risen from 1,012 to 1,249 over the past five years – the first increase since records began.

This equates to an increase of 23%, proving that concerted conservation efforts to save the world's only freshwater porpoise from extinction are making a real difference.

The significant increase follows decades of efforts by the government to protect the species and restore the Yangtze River, including the implementation in 2021 of the Yangtze River Protection Law, which banned all fishing in the Yangtze river system – partly to help conserve the porpoise.

The Yangtze Finless Porpoise population has increased by 23% during the past five years (Justin Jin / WWF-US).

"It is extraordinary to finally see Yangtze finless porpoise numbers increasing after so many years of decline – proving that collective conservation efforts can reverse nature loss," said Lunyan Lu, CEO of WWF-China, which has long supported efforts to conserve Yangtze Finless Porpoise. "There is still work to be done to ensure the long term survival of this iconic species but there is real hope for the first time in decades."

The 2022 survey found that there are now 595 porpoises in the mainstream of Yangtze River, 492 in Poyang Lake and 162 in Dongting Lake.

Over recent decades the population has plummeted due to a range of threats, including accidental entanglement in gill nets, pollution, sand mining, navigation, land use change and loss of habitat. 

WWF has supported the government to protect the porpoises and their habitats by collaborating on population monitoring and relocation of individuals to safer parts of the river system, as well as working with local fishers and the authorities to reduce illegal fishing practices in the porpoise's range. 

"Yangtze Finless Porpoises are an indicator of the health of the river: this significant increase shows they are thriving and that the Yangtze is too. This is critical since 400 million people and extraordinary biodiversity depend on the health of the world's third longest river," said Lunyan Lu. "If the Yangtze finless porpoise can rebound in one of the most densely populated and economically important river basins in the world, it shows we can restore ecosystems and halt species loss around the world."

Halting and then reversing the decline in Yangtze Finless Porpoise has been achieved through a variety of measures, including expanding protected areas, effectively enforcing new and existing laws, collaborating with communities and effective governance at the river-wide level. It shows that with concerted action we can secure a nature-positive world by 2030.

"Incredible results like these for the Yangtze finless porpoise remind us that there is still hope for the world's other five remaining species of river dolphins – all of which are threatened with extinction," said Daphne Willems, WWF Lead, River Dolphin Rivers Initiative. "By taking steps to protect and restore their rivers and reduce threats like illegal fishing, we can help these populations – and their rivers – thrive."