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Yang Xinhua, a member of a volunteer protection squad, searches for a finless porpoise on Poyang Lake. [QU CHANG/XINHUA]

Fisherman Shu Yin"an remembers coming across plenty of finless porpoises when he was young, but the animals - found only in the Yangtze River - are rarely seen these days.

The finless porpoise is the only aquatic mammal in the Yangtze. Around 1,000 are believed to still inhabit the river, as well as two lakes linked to the busy waterway.

In 1991, the population was around 2,700. But by 2006, the number had dropped to 1,800 and has since declined further. Without effective protection, the animals may become extinct within a decade.

Shu, who lives where the Yangtze meets Poyang Lake, has teamed up with 10 other fishermen, mostly retired, to form a squad to protect the species.

"When I was young, I encountered a porpoise the size of a long wooden boat," Shu said. "When I slept on the boat at night, I was often awakened by splashing noises the animals made. It"s sad there are so few of them now."

Along the banks of the Yangtze, a local saying goes, "When the river pigs (porpoises) jump, the tide will be high." The appearance of porpoises on the surface often meant the air pressure was low and a storm was coming.

"For so many years, I pulled plenty of fish out of the waters, and now I have to pay back," said the squad"s leader, Zhang Chuanguo, 65.

"We once used large trawls and sharp hooks. I saw dead porpoises a couple of times. They died of wounds from our hooks and equipment."

Forty wardens specifically tasked with protecting porpoises are stationed along the Yangtze, and their number is expected to reach 100 next month.

A finless porpoise pictured by a member of the squad on Poyang Lake. [Photo/XINHUA]

An app called Porpoise Wardens has also been launched to raise awareness of the animals" plight and encourage more volunteers to help protect them. Users of the app can upload photos of the porpoises they encounter, record injuries and report any activities that may threaten the environment, such as illegal dredging, overfishing and sewage discharge.

Squads complete five patrols a week, covering 40 kilometers of river every day. On March 14, Zhou Junqi, 63, came across a dying porpoise in Poyang Lake. "It was motionless when we discovered it," he said. "We hauled it up to the boat and found a baby porpoise inside its belly. There was nothing I could do, and it was something that I can never forget."

Patrol members confiscate any illegal fishing equipment they find. "Some fishermen know me but still don"t understand why I"m doing this now," Shu said. "They say, "You were once a fisherman, and now you take away someone else"s tools".

"I tell them about new laws and regulations and the importance of not seeking profits at the expense of Mother Nature. I tell them to think about what it means for future generations if the environment gets worse."

To help bring national attention to the issue, in 2016, the central government issued a Yangtze River Finless Porpoises Rescue Action Plan (2016-25).

Xinhua