Animal protectors face blackmail allegations

2014-06-23 08:43

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Dongting Lake - China's river porpoises are rarer than pandas, but fishermen fighting to save them have been snared by a net of blackmail allegations, highlighting uncertainties faced by the country's emerging environmentalists.

Fewer than 1 000 finless porpoises, grey dolphin-like animals with a hint of a grin on their bulbous faces are thought to remain in and around China's vast Yangtze river which carves through the centre of the country.

The porpoises are social and "pick up on human emotions like children would", said Hao Yujiang, researcher at China's institute of hydrobiology.

"They are the last mammals alive in the Yangtze, and they are a warning about the dire state of the river."

"The numbers have decreased very quickly", added Hao, who blames the decline on rampant overfishing, sometimes with electric charges, pollution from industry and sand-dredging ships trapping the animals in their propellers.

The government has pledged to protect those remaining, but environmentalists accuse local agencies of collusion with local industry.

"If the Yangtze porpoise is not delicious, why should we protect it?", state-broadcaster CCTV quoted a local official as saying last year.

Now the detentions of citizens seeking to protect the species are a demonstration of the difficulties facing grassroots environmentalists in China, whose numbers have swelled as citizens deal with an environmental hangover from decades of breakneck economic growth.

A flash of grey

With a bright orange life jacket and coat labelled "River Porpoise Protection Society" shielding him from driving rain, Liu Bo scans the vast waters of Dongting Lake where he patrols daily for the animals.

When a flash of grey appears between choppy waves, Liu's face lights up with excitement. "There's one", he says pointing out from the edge of his small red vessel.

"When we see the porpoises, we feel like we've achieved something", he adds.

Liu, aged 34, was one of a band of fishermen who got together in 2010 to monitor the mammals and inform local authorities of others seen breaking fishing bans.

"Years ago, the porpoises would surround our boats and chase us like little children," Liu said.

"We want to make sure our grandchildren can see the porpoises. When I'm old I can proudly say I helped protect them."

But sailing has not been smooth. Two of Liu's colleagues, He Daming and Li Jinsong were detained in March on charges of blackmailing local fishermen.

State-run media said that one had "confessed" threatening to report a local to authorities unless he was paid a $1 606 fee.

Li remains in detention, while He is on the run from authoritie, leaving his wife Chen Yun distraught.

"He looked after the porpoises every day out of love, not for money", she said, holding a pair of his shoes, tattered from daily lake inspections.

Several local environmentalists said  that Li and He were framed by Xu Yaping, a well-connected journalist from the local Communist party newspaper, who took over the patrol team in 2011.

Tensions had flared between Xu and He, and last year the latter established a breakaway porpoise protection group.

Xu's assistant, surnamed Wang, hung up the phone when called by AFP.

An associate who asked not to be named denied the accusations, adding that Xu is "well known man of culture and a fine calligrapher with excellent connections".

Eased restrictions

Though any groups seen to challenge the ruling Communist party are strictly banned, non-governmental or "civil-society", organisations covering less political areas have seen rapid growth in recent years.

Both Xu and He's groups benefited from an easing last year of restrictions on registration for non-governmental groups which saw 19 000 organisations register in 2013 alone, according to state-media.

"You can see that the local government supported the dolphin protection groups by allowing them to register, showing their trust", said Feng Yongfeng, a Beijing-based environmental commentator.

"The problems stem from internal issues between the groups, and Xu Yaping's connections have allowed him to make things worse", he added.
Read more on:    china  |  marine life  |  conservation

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.
NEXT ON NEWS24X publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
1 comment
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.