SHANGHAI, China – It’s hard to hold a living dinosaur in a concrete pool.
Yet the dozens of Chinese sturgeons swimming lazy circles at the Yangtze Estuarine Nature Reserve in Shanghai may be among the last survivors of a 130-million-year-old species, one of the oldest surviving animals in the world.
As recently as the 1970s, thousands of Chinese sturgeons – a flat-headed fish that can live for 40 years and grow as long as a minivan – spawned each year in the Yangtze, the world’s third-longest waterway. Adults typically spent more than a decade in the Pacific Ocean before swimming thousands of miles up the Yangtze to breed.
Today, a combination of dams, over-fishing and heavy boat traffic has pushed the species to the brink of extinction. Last year, scientists documented only six adult sturgeons in their last known remaining spawning ground.
The sturgeons’ plight underscores the high environmental costs of China’s economic development. China has grown about 10 percent annually since the late 1970s.
But a lack of environmental controls has led to widespread pollution and habitat loss.
From its headwaters on the Tibetan Plateau to where it pours into the East China Sea just north of Shanghai, the Yangtze was once one of the world’s richest ecosystems. Elephants, tigers and alligators roamed its banks. Cranes and other birds fed in wide marshes in its flood plains.
At the beginning of the 20th century the Chinese sturgeon was among the oldest living animal species in the world. Its spawning grounds stretched into Sichuan province, 2,000 miles from the sea.
Through the 1970s, fishermen prized sturgeons for their size and caught hundreds annually.
Beijing listed Chinese sturgeons as endangered in 1988 and banned killing them, but many continued to be injured by fishing nets strung along the riverbank.
Traffic in the Yangtze also became a problem because sturgeons swim near the surface, colliding with boats.
Hydroelectric dams have been the biggest challenge to the Chinese sturgeons’ survival. The Gezhouba Dam was built across the Yangtze River in 1981 to test techniques later used in the Three Gorges Dam.
All of the sturgeons’ traditional breeding grounds lie upstream of the Gezhouba Dam. But some sturgeons made do with a habitat just east of its massive sluice gates.
“There has been so much manmade damage to the river that I sometimes can’t see how the Chinese sturgeon can recover,” said Wei Qiwei, a biologist at the Yangtze River Fisheries Research Institute.
Cox News Service