In recent months, local residents from Dongting Lake in central China have found 32 finless porpoises, each of them dead. With only a few hundred left, the alarming news worries scientists and conservationists. But Rare Conservation Fellow Wei Baoyu sees a silver lining. A year ago, only elders in the lakeside communities knew about the porpoise – a figment from their past. Sightings of the sole mammal left in the Yangtze River system rarely occur. Deaths do, but went unnoted. Now the communities actually report sightings and deaths. They have rallied to protect the porpoise.
“The finless porpoise has gone from obscurity to a star,” says Baoyu. Over the past year, Baoyu employed Rare’s signature social marketing tools inspiring communities to take pride in the finless porpoise and stop behaviors that contribute to its demise. A billboard featuring the porpoise looms over town. Baoyu involves children and adults with puppet shows, calendars, buttons and dynamic discussion forums. He reminds fishers that the animal they colloquially call the “river pig” is also a revered deity capable of divining storms and leads fishers to bounty. The porpoise’s fate is intrinsically tied to the fishers’ futures. Hundreds of volunteers have mobilized the community with grassroots marketing. Baoyu has also enlisted a journalist’s help. The reporter has written dozens of stories about the porpoise’s plight. Their combined efforts have catalyzed extraordinary change.
“The finless porpoise has gone from obscurity to a star.”
~Rare Conservation Fellow Wei Baoyu
One hundred percent of fishers in the Dongting Lake Finless Porpoise Reserve have stopped electric fishing. The local government put a temporary halt on sand mining until more is known about the porpoises’ cause of death. Injuries from boats, strangulation in nets, starvation and pollution are all suspects. The local water authority banned waste discharge from vessels into the lake. Ten volunteers now patrol the area. And the community is aggressively lobbying government officials to upgrade the porpoise’s protection status so it is on par with the giant panda. After all, there are fewer finless porpoises than pandas left in the wild.
Baoyu attributes a renewed hope for the porpoise to the Pride campaign. He feels confident the small cetacean will not suffer the same fate as its slightly larger cousin, the Yangtze river dolphin (baiji) which was declared extinct in 2006.