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Great Wall Across the Yangtze

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Endangered Species

My grandmother wrote these lovely letters about how beautiful the river was and how many dolphins were playing around their boat all the time. When I went up the river, I was shocked by the fact that I saw hardly any wildlife. - Audrey Ronning Topping, journalist

The Three Gorges Dam project threatens many endangered species that are native to the Yangtze River. The baiji dolphin, the ancient river sturgeon and the finless porpoise depend on the Yangtze for their survival. The population of Siberian cranes in Poyang Lake will also be affected by the dam. These species may soon be extinct, and the Three Gorges Dam will accelerate their decline.


Siberian Crane

Known as "pandas in water," the baiji dolphin is a living fossil. Paleontologists believe that its ancestors moved from land to water over 70 million years ago. Today's baiji is the last surviving species of this lineage, and it has been given the highest level of protection by the Chinese government. But fishing and river traffic have already depleted the baiji population. Dams block access to tributaries and lakes where baiji once caught fish and nurtured their young. There are fewer than one hundred dolphins alive today. Efforts to breed the baiji in captivity have failed. All potential mates for QiQi, the lone baiji male at the Institute of Hydrobiology in Wuhan, have died in the transition to captivity.

Siberian cranes feed on the frogs, mollusks, insects and fish in Poyang Lake, which is filled by the seasonal flooding of the Yangtze. The dam's control over the water that fills the lake would affect the animals living there. Siberians are the most endangered of all cranes. Captive breeding of these cranes is very difficult. The largest flock of 3,000 birds depends on its winter habitat on Poyang Lake. The cranes migrate 3,100 miles to the Yangtze region from their breeding ground in western Siberia.

The finless porpoise prefer to live in shallow, warm waters like those of the Yangtze River. Although they are legally protected in China, their populations are declining due to habitat destruction. They are easily identifiable by their lack of dorsal fins (on their backs), for which other porpoises are known. Among the smallest creatures in the whale family, at an average length of 5 feet, the finless porpoise is found only in Asian rivers and the western Pacific Ocean. Some have been bred in captivity at the Tian'ezhou White-Flag Dolphin National Nature Reserve in central China's Hubei Province.



The giant Chinese river sturgeon breeds at Changshu, on the Yangtze River. This fish, which dates back 140 million years, is among the most endangered of China's wildlife. Fishermen catch as many as 3,000 sturgeon by mistake every year. In August 2000, when a fisherman spotted a rare sturgeon on the Qiantang River, elders recalled that the fish disappeared from the river after the Xinanjiang Reservoir was built in the 1950s. The reservoir affected the temperature of the water, making it unsuitable for this prehistoric creature.

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