In Search of the Baiji: An Adventure in China
by D. W. Hoard and S. Wachter

The Semi-Natural Reserves

Chapters 1-10 of this document were written in 1995. We were much younger, there were still baiji swimming in the Yangtze River, and China was a different world. A lot has changed for all of us since then...

One of the goals of our project to learn about baiji conservation in China was to visit the semi-natural reserves which have been established at two sites (Tongling and Shishou) in oxbows of the Yangtze River. Unfortunately, as we will explain below, we were unable to do so. Before going into the details, however, we should give a little background on the current status of the reserves. First and most important, a viable breeding population of baiji has never been successfully captured and introduced into either reserve, which is their overall goal. Of course, this is not for lack of trying: Dr. Zhang told us that during the spring of 1995, they had a team of 70 people and 22 boats searching the lower Yangtze River for baiji, but they saw only 4 or 5 dolphins and were unable to capture any of them. Since the numbers of wild baiji have dwindled to the point of “functional extinction” in 2006, it is almost certain that the semi-natural reserves will never sustain a breeding population of baiji.

Second, a group of about ten finless porpoises was introduced into the Shishou reserve several years ago to test the feasibility of raising a population of marine mammals in the facility. They are still living there, although there has been at least one accident involving net-entanglements that resulted in the deaths of several animals.

A map of semi-natural reserves and baiji conservation sites, circa 2006 (see this link).

While we were in Nanjing, Dr. Zhou offered to contact the director of the Tongling reserve on our behalf to ask if we could visit the reserve. We were told, however, that it would not be possible for us to visit, as they were currently too busy repairing damage caused by the recent flooding of the Yangtze River. In Wuhan, we asked Dr. Zhang if it would be possible to visit the Shishou reserve (which is some distance upriver from Wuhan). He told us this would not be possible because that reserve is a national facility, so we would require the permission of the central government to visit, and this could take several months to obtain. We found this to be a much more reasonable explanation than we were given in Tongling, for several reasons. First, we had seen no other signs of flood damage in the Tongling area. Second, Dr. Zhang was clearly skeptical of the viability of the Tongling reserve for a number of reasons (see below). Thus, we suspect that we were denied permission to visit the Tongling reserve because it may be in a state of considerable disrepair and so the reserve director does not want any visitors to see it.

Reasons why Shishou is more feasible than Tongling as a baiji reserve site:

  • The Shishou site is further upstream than the Tongling site, so the water is less polluted.
  • The oxbow that makes up the Shishou reserve is almost 60 km long – considerably larger than the Tongling reserve.
  • The Tongling reserve loses contact with the main flow of the Yangtze when the river level is low, so new water must be pumped into the reserve.
  • The Tongling reserve is too small to maintain even a viable population of food fish and must be constantly restocked, whereas the Shishou reserve can easily support a large population of food fish.
  • Most importantly, the Shishou reserve has successfully housed a small population of finless porpoises for several years, while two finless porpoises introduced into the Tongling reserve did not survive.

All of the factors listed above make Shishou a better prospect than Tongling for housing a breeding population of baiji. Dr. Brownell (of the Southwest Fisheries Center) feels that all support in China should go to just the Shishou reserve, rather than to promoting two competing reserves. Shishou is such an ideal site for a marine mammal reserve, however, that the status of the finless porpoises currently in the reserve has become problematic. Brownell and other foreign experts believe that the finless porpoises should be released from the reserve as soon as any baiji are introduced into it, so that the baiji are not forced to compete with the porpoises inside the reserve. However, Dr. Zhang told us that the Chinese biologists feel that the reserve is quite large enough to support populations of both species, so they intend to maintain the finless porpoises when (if) baiji are introduced into the reserve. The basis for this disagreement is clear: on one hand, the baiji are so endangered that you don't want anything to reduce their chances in the reserve. On the other hand, although the finless porpoises are not endangered now, they will almost inevitably end up sharing the baiji's fate; thus, it cannot be too soon to start trying to save the porpoises now.

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