Smiling at danger, China’s finless porpoise fights to survive

File Photo showing a Yangtze finless porpoise being fed at Tianezhou national nature reserve in Shishou. (AFP)
Updated 21 December 2018
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Smiling at danger, China’s finless porpoise fights to survive

  • Porpoise numbers fell by nearly half from 2006-2012 to an estimated 1,040
  • The finless porpoise is mentioned in ancient Chinese poems and has been considered a harbinger of rain

WUHAN, CHINA: In an oxbow lake along the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, a breathy sigh pierces the surface stillness as one of China’s most endangered animals comes up for a gulp of hazy air.
A slick black back with no dorsal fin arches briefly above the water line before plunging back down.
Such glimpses of the shy Yangtze finless porpoise, the only aquatic mammal left in China’s longest river and known in Chinese as the “smiling angel” for its perma-grin, are increasingly rare.
Pollution, overfishing, hydroelectric dams and shipping traffic have rendered them critically endangered, worse off even than China’s best-known symbol of animal conservation, the panda.
China’s government estimates there were 1,012 wild Yangtze finless porpoises in 2017, compared to more than 1,800 giant pandas, which is no longer endangered.
But researchers see signs of hope.
Porpoise numbers fell by nearly half from 2006-2012 to an estimated 1,040. But the rate of decline has slowed markedly since then, suggesting that conservation may be making a dent.
A central component of the rescue effort is the introduction of porpoises to several conservation areas off the busy river, where researchers say numbers have been actually increasing.
At the Tianezhou Oxbow Nature Reserve in central China’s Hubei province, a curving lake linked to the Yangtze by a stream, around 30-40 porpoises were brought in beginning in the 1990s. There are now around 80.
“We found out animals can not only survive but also reproduce naturally and successfully at Tianezhou. That’s very encouraging,” said Wang Ding, 60, a porpoise expert with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Researchers also credit official clampdowns on polluting activities and fish over-harvesting, artificial reproduction projects, and growing environmental awareness among China’s emerging middle class.
“The voice and supervision of the public has played an important role,” said Zhang Xinqiao, the species’ project manager at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
Chinese officials are keen to avoid a repeat of the “baiji,” or Yangtze dolphin, the river’s only other aquatic mammal, which since 2006 has been considered extinct in a huge conservation setback for China.
Losing the “smiling angel” would be a further tragedy, conservationists say.
One of the world’s few freshwater porpoise subspecies, it is considered a natural barometer of the overall health of China’s most important river.
The finless porpoise is mentioned in ancient Chinese poems and has been considered a harbinger of rain. Some locals call it the “river pig” for its plump body and rounded headed.
Adults can reach two meters (six feet) long and were sometimes eaten, despite not being considered particularly tasty. Their livers were used in traditional medicines.
Since China re-opened to the world four decades ago, living standards have soared, but so have air and water pollution.
The Yangtze contributes more to ocean pollution than any other world river, according to Dutch NGO Ocean Cleanup.
Hydroelectric dams built on the river to satisfy soaring energy demand have also been disastrous for biodiversity.
But in January 2016, President Xi Jinping called for a river protection push. Steps have included curbs on development, stricter fishing rules and other protection projects.
Later that year, a formal porpoise action plan was launched, including increased relocations away from the river, more reserve sites, and research on artificial breeding.
The Tianezhou reserve, established in 1992, claims to be the world’s first and only example of cetaceans — which include dolphins and porpoises — surviving and reproducing after relocation.
Local fishermen near the lake were encouraged to change professions and Wang Hesong, 46, became a patrolman at the reserve.
“Look over there, a mother and a baby,” Wang said, as his pilot cut their patrol boat’s engine at the sight of two arched backs breaking the silvery surface. The shy mammals quickly submerged.
“They only come up for a couple of seconds to breathe... We go out patrolling every day and we see them every day,” Wang said.
The 21-kilometer-long (13-mile) lake offers sanctuary, but porpoises within the river face intense pressure.
The WWF’s Zhang said the species’ days in the river may be numbered.
“They have nowhere to hide in the river,” he said.
“As long as danger exists, such as a further deterioration of natural habitat, it’s very likely their numbers could drastically decrease again.”
With the clock ticking, a research facility in the nearby industrial city of Wuhan hosts six finless porpoises for research, breeding, and to engage the public.
Two gracefully circled by an observation window that looks into their huge tank, playfully tilting their bodies to glimpse the human visitors.
“They are saying ‘hi’ to us,” said Liu Hanhui, a volunteer. “I think they understand human feelings.”
The WWF says adult Yangtze finless porpoises have the intelligence of a three-to-five-year-old child.
Just before feeding, they are coaxed to open their mouths on cue, show off their smiles, and shake hands by extending a flipper.
Yet they are difficult to breed in captivity.
A calf born in June at the dolphinarium — founded in 1980 — is just the second produced there to survive more than 100 days, while wild calves often die before adulthood due to human impact on the environment.
Liu, an aquaculture student at a nearby university, and 40 other volunteers help feed them on weekends and holidays, and take part in various activities to promote awareness.
Conservation programs and events in the region have proliferated in recent years, backed by scores of businesses and NGOs aiming to instruct the public and encourage greater government protection efforts.
“Our development has caused a species to rapidly disappear. I feel like I’m atoning for mankind’s crimes,” Liu said.


Children’s author Judith Kerr, who wrote ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’, dies

Updated 23 May 2019
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Children’s author Judith Kerr, who wrote ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’, dies

  • Kerr's family fled Germany as the Nazi's rose to power
  • She based the characters on animals she had seen in real life

LONDON: British writer and illustrator Judith Kerr, whose death at 95 was announced on Thursday, captivated young readers around the world with her tales of a fluffy tiger coming to tea, a trouble-prone cat and her own family's flight from Nazi Germany.
With curly hair and a mischievous smile, the petite Kerr worked well into her 90s, saying she even picked up the pace in old age, drawing inspiration from events in her own life to become one of Britain's best-loved children's authors.
Kerr was born in Berlin on June 14, 1923, fleeing Germany 10 years later after a policeman tipped off her father Alfred Kerr, a prominent Jewish writer, that the family was in danger from the rising Nazi power.
"My father was ill in bed with flu and this man rang up and said: 'They are trying to take away your passport, you must get out immediately'," she recalled in an interview with AFP in June 2018.
He took the first train to Switzerland and his wife and two children soon joined him. A day after their escape, the Nazis took power.
The family moved on to Paris before settling in London in 1936.
This story is loosely recounted from a child's perspective in Kerr's semi-autobiographical novel "When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit" (1971) in which the fleeing girl can only take one toy and so leaves behind a favourite rabbit.
Kerr, who started drawing at a young age, credited the success of the book with being "published at a time when the Germans hadn't really managed to talk to their children about the past".
But she is better known for "The Tiger Who Came to Tea", released in 1968 to become a global classic of children's literature, with at least five million copies sold and published in more than 30 languages.
Kerr's first picture book, it tells of a girl and her mother interrupted at teatime by a huge, fluffy tiger who eats everything in sight before leaving again.
She was able to write up the story -- a bedtime favourite of her young daughter -- while her husband was at work and their two children at school.
The fictional family mirrors her own at the time, the illustrations featuring the yellow and white kitchen cupboards of their London home.
Kerr used tigers at a London zoo as models for her feline creation.
Next was "Mog the Forgetful Cat" (1970), the first in what became a 17-book series about the antics of a mischievous, egg-loving moggy inspired by her own pet.
"Goodbye Mog" (2002) was meant to be the last offering -- broaching the subject of death with the much-loved cat departing for heaven. But supermarket chain Sainsbury's persuaded Kerr to produce one more in 2015: "Mog's Christmas Calamity".
Proceeds of the last book were for Save the Children's work on child literacy, and a TV advert was the first to feature Mog in animation with Kerr herself also making a cameo appearance.
In her illustrated story "My Henry" (2011) -- for children and adults -- an elderly lady fantasises about adventures with her late husband, such as climbing Mount Everest, hunting lions, and riding dinosaurs.
Kerr dedicated the book to her husband Thomas Nigel Kneale, a respected screenwriter who died in 2006. The couple met at the BBC, where they both worked, and married in 1954.
Commenting on the book in 2011, The Telegraph wrote: "For all the depth of underlying emotion, there's a celebratory feel to it, an unfeigned lightness of spirit that, throughout her life, has been a great boon.
"It has helped her cope with widowhood just as it allowed her to get over the loss, exile, penury and frustration of her early life."
In 2012 Kerr was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for services to children's literature and Holocaust education.