Global Times: Guardians of Yangtze River witness inspiring changes in ecological conservation under China’s modernization process

BEIJING, Jan. 5, 2024 /PRNewswire/ — Two adorable photos of Yangtze finless porpoises have been serving as 56-year-old Liu Chenglin’s WeChat profile picture, who has worked as a Yangtze River patrol officer, for the last five years.

The pictures were taken in 2019 during a patrol training session in Yichang, Central China’s Hubei Province. The need to protect the Yangtze finless porpoises has long been Liu’s belief.

“When I was young, I used to go fishing with my father in the Yangtze River. Back then, the Yangtze finless porpoises would chase after our boat, riding the waves with us,” Liu recalled nostalgically.

“But as time went on, it became increasingly difficult to catch fish in the river. The Yangtze finless porpoises rely on small fish for food, and as fish populations declined, the finless porpoises gradually disappeared,” Liu sighed, noting that after the year of 2000, the fishery resources in the Yangtze River became scarce.

“By 2010, it was difficult to make a living solely through fishing,” Liu told the Global Times. 

The Yangtze finless porpoise is a nationally protected wild animal and one of the 13 flagship species identified by the World Wildlife Fund. It plays a crucial role in assessing the ecological status of the Yangtze River ecosystem.

In the past, the ecological environment of the Yangtze River suffered severe damage due to overfishing and other intensive human activities. Before 2015, only 2 to 3 members of the species remained in the Yichang section of the Yangtze River. In 2018, data released by China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs showed that there were only about 1,012 finless porpoises left in the Yangtze River.

Now, Liu is thrilled to witness the return of the finless porpoises, riding the waves alongside his boat just as before, and their numbers are increasing.

“The Yangtze finless porpoises are the mascots of Yichang! And I have taken on a new role to protect them,” Liu said with delight.

On January 1, 2018, the Yichang Chinese Sturgeon Protection Zone became the first to implement a comprehensive ban on fishing, with all fishermen being resettled and transitioned into other occupations.

In June of the same year, Yichang established an assistance patrol team. Liu, who had been a licensed fisherman since 1995, became one of the first members of the patrol team.

“At that time, there were over 200 retired fishermen in our district, but only six patrol officers were chosen. I told myself that I had to work hard to pass the exam and be selected. I wanted to work on the river, but I also wanted to transform from being a ‘fisherman’ to a ‘fish protector,'” said Liu.

Yichang is located in the central and upper parts of the Yangtze River and plays a crucial role in protecting the river’s ecosystem. The fishing resources are incredibly abundant, which makes it tempting for illegal fishermen and poses challenges in enforcing the ban.

“When I first became a patrol officer, some friends thought I was doing a job that would make people discontent,” Liu recalled.

In the early days of the patrol team, fishermen could still be seen using electric nets or multiple fishing rods and hooks along the Yangtze River. Initially, it was difficult to cooperate with law enforcement and convince those engaged in illegal fishing to stop. The patrol officers faced verbal abuse, and Liu even had his face scratched by a fish hook during a confrontation with fishermen.

“But our team is very united. We know where illegal fishing incidents are likely to happen. Our work can be seen as giving back to the Yangtze River using the skills we learned from her,” Liu said.

On January 1, 2021, a decade-long comprehensive fishing ban officially began in the mainstream of the Yangtze River and important tributaries. This led to 110,000 fishing boats and 231,000 fishermen retiring and going ashore, leading to a complete transformation of the economic and social development of the Yangtze River Basin toward a greener future.

With the progress of Yangtze River conservation efforts, especially the implementation of the 10-year fishing ban, the concept of ecological civilization has deeply rooted itself in the hearts of the Chinese people as Liu found his job to be increasingly easier and more enjoyable now.

“In the past, many fishermen weren’t well educated, and were unaware of the significant impact of illegal fishing methods like electric fishing, poisoning, and blasting. But after raising awareness, their environmental consciousness has been enhanced. Some even created banners and videos voluntarily to promote the fishing ban on the internet,” he said.

Now, “See you at the dock” has become the enthusiastic slogan for Liu and his team members. The section of the Yangtze River in Yichang, which Liu patrols, is an important habitat for the Yangtze finless porpoise and a core protection area for Chinese sturgeons. He often takes a speedboat to observe the Yangtze finless porpoises and other precious animals that frequently appear in the Yangtze River. “At first, I could remember each individual, but as there are more Yangtze finless porpoises, and it’s not easy for me to determine which is which,” Liu shared.

According to the latest statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, as of July 2023, more than 700 assisting patrol teams have been established in the entire Yangtze River Basin, with over 25,000 assisting patrol officers.

“Our power may be small, but we are determined and confident in our mission to protect the Yangtze River. We firmly believe that in the future, the mountains along our Mother River will be greener, the water will be more beautiful, and people and nature will coexist in harmony,” Liu said.

‘Smiling angel’ becomes internet celebrity

For Jiang Meng, secretary-general of the Nanjing Finless Porpoise and Aquatic Life Conservation Association (NFPALCA), the happiest thing to do every day is to take a walk along the Yangtze River in Nanjing. The autumn and winter seasons are the best time to observe the Yangtze finless porpoise. With careful observation, people can always capture the graceful arcs of the animal’s dark and agile bodies leaping out of the river.

In December 2023, Jiang launched the “Yangtze Finless Porpoise Diary” column on his WeChat video account, recording daily encounters with the Yangtze finless porpoise and sharing them with netizens.

Jiang is fascinated by the Yangtze finless porpoises because their mouths naturally curve upward, giving them a healing smiling appearance. The popularity of the finless porpoise on social media platforms is a source of great pride for him as it indicates that these “smiling angels” have become “internet celebrities.”

On September 26, 2023, the Nanjing Ecological Environment Protection and Education Center, in collaboration with the NFPALCA, launched the “Finding Smiles in the Yangtze River” live broadcast, which attracted nearly 50,000 netizens across the country. In the live chat, netizens asked questions about the differences between the Yangtze finless porpoise and a dolphin and the purpose of the porpoise’s “bowing to the wind.”

Jiang cherishes every encounter with the Yangtze finless porpoise and appreciates the enthusiasm of netizens for the animal. He told the Global Times that his greatest wish is for these “smiling angels” to always be good companions for the Chinese people and “share the lucid waters and lush mountains” with us.

However, for a long time, Jiang had been living in constant worry. In 2007, when he heard the news of the functional extinction of white-flag dolphins, he realized, for the first time, that “the Yangtze River was sick.” A few years later, when he heard that there was a pod of “smiling angels” in the Yangtze River in imminent danger, he was unable to sit idly by. “I must do something for the Yangtze River!”

With this personal call to action, over the last decade, Jiang and the association’s experts and volunteers have held over a hundred science lectures and activities annually, and have created a venue for people to learn about the Yangtze finless porpoise and other aquatic species in the river.

Through these efforts, more and more people have come to understand the importance and urgency of jointly protecting the Yangtze finless porpoise and the Yangtze River ecosystem. More people have also been inspired to join the association.

On September 19, 2022, the fourth scientific investigation of the Yangtze finless porpoise in the entire Yangtze River basin was launched in Nanjing, East China’s Jiangsu Province, with Jiang as a member of the scientific investigation team.

For him, this was not only an investigation of the current status of the Yangtze finless porpoise, but also an assessment of his decade of guardianship.

“On September 25 – the seventh day of the investigation – we discovered the presence of the Yangtze finless porpoise throughout the route, from Yangzhou Sanjiangying, through the Zhenjiang conservation area, to the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge,” said Jiang, when he realized that his efforts had borne fruit.

In recent years, with the advancement of the Yangtze River conservation initiative, the playful glee of the Yangtze finless porpoise has been witnessed more frequently in the Nanjing section of the Yangtze River.

According to the latest survey on the resources of the Nanjing Yangtze finless porpoise provincial nature reserve released by the Nanjing Greening and Landscaping Bureau, as of March 2023, the number of the Yangtze finless porpoises in Nanjing was stable and showed an increasing trend, with a population of about 62, making it one of the sections with the highest density of Yangtze finless porpoises.

Currently, Jiang’s association has nearly 30 staff members who are working together with local departments to promote Yangtze finless porpoise culture. “We hope to maximize the ecological and cultural value of the Yangtze finless porpoise, making the species a green engine that supports the high-quality development of Nanjing and the Yangtze River Economic Belt.”

China solution draws global attention

On the Yangtze River, fishermen are now protectors of fish, epitomizing China’s ecological and environmental protection efforts. In recent decades, especially the last decade, similar stories have unfolded across China – loggers have become forest rangers and firefighters; herdsmen have swapped hunting rifles for binoculars and telephoto lenses to observe and protect wildlife; villagers who once lived by logging and exploiting mountain resources now reap ecological benefits, with a true understanding of why “lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets,” and willingly protecting their homeland.

The Chinese path to modernization is the modernization of harmony between humanity and nature. Respecting, conforming to, and protecting nature are inherent requirements in building a comprehensively modern socialist country.

Over the last decade, China has revised and enacted 13 laws and 17 administrative regulations on air, water, and soil pollution prevention; dozens of ecological civilization construction reform plans were also introduced.

China’s efforts in ecological and environmental protection are not only crucial for its sustainable development but also provide valuable experience and insight for global ecological and environmental protection. China’s practice shows that through government guidance, technological innovation, and public participation, environmental protection and sustainable development can be effectively promoted.

Erik Solheim, former under-secretary-general of the United Nations and former executive director of the UN Environment Program, told the Global Times, in an exclusive interview, that he used to recommend countries seeking environmental protection solutions to visit European cities like Brussels, Paris, and Berlin. However, he now advises them to look toward Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shenzhen, and Hangzhou.

“It is clear to everyone that China is the absolute world leader (in this transition). Between 60 and 80 percent of all renewable technologies are now happening in China alone, including solar, wind, hydropower, electric cars, buses, trains, batteries…” he said.

China has at least 80 percent of the global market share in solar manufacturing capacity. The rest of the world needs to get up very early in the morning if they want to compete,” he noted.

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, also praised China’s significant contributions to environmental protection and climate change in a previous interview with the Global Times. He noted that China’s leading position in these areas has created a “race to the top” competition toward higher standards, which is beneficial to environmental protection work.