Ex­is­ten­tial bat­tle to sur­vive, both in the wa­ter and in the air

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COVER STORY - By XU JUNQIAN in Shang­hai

The clinic that Liu Jian man­ages on Chong­ming is­land north­east of down­town Shang­hai is un­like any you will ever have seen. It is quiet, spa­cious, and empty — and in­deed is des­per­ately keen to have pa­tients.

The clinic, cov­er­ing 55,900 square me­ters and built in 2014, is of­fi­cially named the Shang­hai Yangtze River Es­tu­ary’s Chi­nese Stur­geon Na­ture Con­ser­va­tion Area, ded­i­cated to the gi­ant fish be­lieved to have ex­isted for more than 140 mil­lion years since the age of di­nosaurs.

The fish, known in Chi­nese as the Zhong Hua Xun or sub­ma­rine panda, is 2 to 5 me­ters when it is fully grown, and is na­tive to China. It mostly lives along the Yangtze River but has been on the brink of ex­tinc­tion for 20 years.

“It would be a gross un­der­state­ment to say the Chi­nese stur­geon is at risk,” said Liu, di­rec­tor of the ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fice of the con­ver­sa­tion area.

Liu, who has worked with the fish for al­most 20 years, said that while over­fish­ing and river pol­lu­tion have caused the sharp fall in num­bers, it has been dis­cov­ered that it has stopped re­pro­duc­ing.

Chi­nese stur­geons spend most of their life at sea but be­cause they mi­grate to the Yangtze River to reproduce they are re­garded as a fresh­wa­ter species. Dozens of dams have been built on the river since the 1980s and this has put its habi­tat at risk. In 2013, 32 years af­ter Chi­nese sci­en­tists started to mon­i­tor and record the pro­duc­tiv­ity of the fish, it was dis­cov­ered no wild fish spawned nat­u­rally.

“It is as though the en­tire species has been ster­il­ized,” said Liu, in front of banks of sparkling, new med­i­cal equip­ment tai­lor-made for the stur­geon, all of it thus far un­used.

But Liu and his team, as well as the Chong­ming dis­trict gov­ern­ment, are not giv­ing up.

Apart from work­ing with other in­sti­tu­tions to ar­ti­fi­cially breed the en­dan­gered species, the of­fice has helped save hun­dreds of young fish from the 276 square kilo­me­ters where the Yangtze River en­ters the East China Sea and where the young fish would spend their lives be­fore go­ing out to sea.

“Peo­ple often ask us what ex­actly a world-class eco­log­i­cal is­land is, or whether there is a pro­to­type for the project we are work­ing on,” said Wu Zhaozhong, deputy gover­nor of Chong­ming dis­trict. “I have to say there is none. But we be­lieve that if we cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment, that is as friendly for hu­mans as for an­i­mals that is bring­ing us closer to be­ing eco­log­i­cal.”

Un­der a plan made pub­lic by Shang­hai mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment at the end of last year on turn­ing Chong­ming into a world-class eco­log­i­cal is­land, pre­serv­ing Chi­nese stur­geon is one of the six key mea­sures that would make the is­land a nat­u­ral eco­log­i­cal re­gion.

Another is pro­tect­ing the mi­gra­tory birds that stop off on Chong­ming and in­creas­ing their num­bers.

For these birds, Chong­ming is a hos­pitable stopover site, a place where they can recharge and seek shel­ter dur­ing bad weather on their way to and from Aus­tralia and Rus­sia, and it is es­ti­mated that the is­land re­ceives an av­er­age of 290 species of birds, their num­bers climb­ing to about 1 mil­lion in to­tal a year thanks to the is­land’s well-pre­served wet­land and nat­u­ral habi­tats.

“We are run­ning one of the world’s busiest air­ports for birds,” joked Tang Chen­dong, di­rec­tor of Chong­ming Dong­tan Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve.

Un­like Liu and the en­dan­gered stur­geons he is fight­ing to save, Tang faces a much more op­ti­mistic sit­u­a­tion be­cause the num­ber of birds that flock to Chong­ming seems to grow ev­ery year.

Re­serve of­fi­cials es­ti­mated that last win­ter 60,000 more birds than in the pre­vi­ous year made a stopover on the wet­lands, which cover 84 square kilo­me­ters, twice the area of nearby Pudong In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

“That was the best I have seen in the 17 years I have worked here,” Tang said.

In 2002 the re­gion was listed as a Wet­land of In­ter­na­tional Im­por­tance un­der the Ram­sar Con­ven­tion, also known as the Con­ven­tion on Wet­lands.

We be­lieve that if we cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment that is as friendly for hu­mans as for an­i­mals, that is bring­ing us closer to be­ing eco­log­i­cal.”

Wu Zhaozhong,

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PHO­TOS BY GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY

Dong­tan Wet­land in Chong­ming; the clinic at the Shang­hai Yangtze River Es­tu­ary’s Chi­nese Stur­geon Na­ture Con­ser­va­tion Area is ded­i­cated to pro­tect­ing and giv­ing treat­ment to in­jured gi­ant fish.

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