Featured Image Credit: Wikimedia
By Emily Persico
The “river pig” is certainly one of the less glamorous animals of China’s Yangtze River – home to the endangered giant panda and the once-mystical-now-extinct Yangtze River dolphin – but this tiny creature has been garnishing more attention as of late as its population sinks closer and closer to extinction.
Also known as a Yangtze River porpoise, the river pig is the only freshwater porpoise in the world. Unfortunately, this finless tube of an animal is on a steep decline, its population of around 1,000 individuals shrinking 14 percent each year. Conservation biologists are running out of time to save the species; they estimate they have under a decade to figure this one out before it’s too late.
That’s why scientists are hard at work trying to uncover basic mysteries about the animal. Just this month, a group of scientists published research that – for the first time – established the Yangzte River porpoise as a distinct species, meaning that breeding with other porpoise populations is out of the question. Apparently, the river pig split from its porpoise cousins some 5,000 to 40,000 years ago.
Other species – including the Florida Panther – have been revived through the introduction of subspecies into their tiny, failing population. When too few remained, inbreeding of Florida Panthers became rampant and reproductive defects and heart populations began to riddle the failing species. It was only after the Texas cougar, a separate sub-species was introduced that the Florida Panther was able to recover. Because the river pig is not part of a sub-species, however, this last-ditch effort is unavailable. The genetic pool is quickly shrinking on these guys, and they don’t have any backups.
Instead, the recovery of the river pig depends entirely on the health of its habitat: The Yangzte River. The Yangzte, which has some of the highest biodiversity in the world, is also among the world’s most polluted rivers. It’s been bombarded with construction projects (including the Three Gorges Dam, which has the largest capacity for electricity production of any power plant in the world), urbanization, sewage and industrial discharge (half of China’s total discharge ends up in the river) — the list goes on. Meanwhile, the Yangzte River porpoise just keeps on swimming, waiting for us to deliver it either sanctuary or death.