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Farewell to the baiji

In the first of a new series of regular columns from China’s top environmental writers, Wang Yongchen investigates the Yangtze River dolphin, which a recent survey declared functionally extinct.

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The baiji, one of the world’s four species of freshwater dolphins, left the oceans 20 million years ago and settled in the middle and lower reaches of China’s Yangtze River. The baiji has existed for around 25 million years, far longer than the famed giant panda, which has been around for five or six million years. The species is also described in the Erya, a Chinese dictionary dating back to 200 B.C., where it is named the “Goddess of the Yangtze”.

But how is this goddess faring in today’s Yangtze?

The Yangtze Freshwater Dolphin Expedition 2006, made up of experts from China, Japan, Switzerland, Germany, the UK and the US, conducted a six-week survey of the Yangtze River. The survey used the most advanced detection techniques to cover the 1,700 kilometres of the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze – from Yichang to Shanghai – but they failed to find even a single baiji.

Scientists believe that when the Erya was written, the Yangtze was home to over 5,000 baiji. But by the 1980s, Chinese experts announced that this number had fallen to less than 300 and the World Conservation Union named the baiji as one of the world’s 12 most endangered species. In 1993, it was announced that the number of surviving baiji was less than 100; China’s Ministry of Agriculture found 13 baiji in 1997, and only four in 1998 and 1999.

“At the start we would try to encourage everyone, saying there were promising stretches of the river we hadn’t checked yet,” says Wang Kexiong, a member of the 2006 expedition from the Institute of Hydrobiology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “Then we would say – let’s go over those stretches one more time.” But after a week of going back and forth, his hopes had faded. “We still didn’t find any,” says Wang.

But what about other species of river dolphin? Today there are over 10,000 botos, or Amazon River dolphins, while dolphins in the Ganges and Mekong rivers each have growing populations of over 2,000. But the baiji may now be the first cetacean mammal that humans have driven to extinction.

Some say that the baiji was too old, that like the dinosaurs it was bound to die out sooner or later. But Zhou Kaiya, a professor of zoology at Nanjing Normal University, disagrees. The age of the species is irrelevant, says Zhou, human interference is the real problem. According to incomplete statistics, human activity was to blame for 90% of baiji deaths before 1985, in cases where the cause could be ascertained.

The 2006 expedition also investigated water quality in the Yangtze River. The results astounded Robert L. Pitman, a dolphin expert from the US NOAA Fisheries Ecosystem Studies Program, who described the water as “completely unsuitable for cetaceans.” Two scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology also collected water and silt samples. The results of their tests are still forthcoming, but a member of the survey said in a media interview: “There is already no plankton to speak of in the Yangtze. We used a specialised plankton net to trawl the river for 10 hours and only caught two shrimp, which were less than one centimetre long. It's hard to imagine that fish could survive here, and with no fish the baiji will starve.”

The baiji first caught the attention of China’s environmental NGOs and media organisations in 1997. Reports came in of a dead baiji found with 103 separate open wounds; baiji with crushed skulls and dolphins sliced in two; and a pod of four baiji – two of them pregnant females – killed by explosions used to clear waterways in central China’s Hubei province. What stunned another expedition member, Yao Zhiping, was the amount of shipping on the river. On south China’s Poyang Lakealone, she counted 1,200 sand dredgers before giving up. Industrial growth on the banks of the Yangtze River and the increased use of fertilisers are both damaging water quality. One report found much higher levels of pollutants in the bodies of the baiji than in those of sea dolphins. The Yangtze River seems to have lost its capacity for natural purification.

As Liu Jiankang and Chen Yiyu, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, write in their Suggestions for Protecting the Baiji: “Human activity on the Yangtze, including fishing, shipping and irrigation are increasing – and so is pollution. These are the main reasons for the shrinking baiji population.”

Before the expedition, the scientists had estimated that less than 50 baiji survived; and when a population is that small, zoologists agree that the chances of saving it are slim. The accepted best practice for preserving endangered species is to relocate them to a safe area. If the survey had found any baiji, it would have used details from the survey to capture and relocate them next spring, moving them to a protection zone in Hubei Province’s Tian'e Zhou: a lake and reserve that used to be part of the Yangtze River. But none were found.

The search has now ended, but could there be any baiji left? Nobody can say for sure; yet Wang Ding and his colleagues at the Institute of Hydrobiology believe the endearing animal still survives.

And if this is the case, could cloning and in vitro fertilisation help save it? The baiji and the sea-dwelling Chinese white dolphin are closely related; could they be interbred? Wang Ding says the chances of mating the baiji with the Chinese white dolphin are small, since they belong to different families. Cloning could be a possibility, but an extremely difficult one that would require cells to be transplanted into another animal in order to grow, and there are no animals in China closely related enough to make this a realistic option.     

The Chinese people gave the baiji the name “Goddess of the Yangtze”. But if our dreams of seeing the goddess again are to come true, our slogans about “living in harmony with nature” need to become more than just words.


Yongcheng Wang is a reporter for China National Radio. In 1996, she founded Green Earth Volunteers, which campaigns environmental protection issues in China. Wang is also a winner of the Globe Award, China's top environmental prize.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Could we have acted earlier?

I have been surprised at the number of reports here in the UK about the baiji--this was one of the most interesting of them. Why do these only get published when there is little hope of saving the species? Now is the time to report, locally and internationally, on species that are just starting to face danger. Are we content to live our lives continually reading such sad stories as this one?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Deeply upsetting

It seems so much worse when you know this will likely be just one of many species to become extinct over the coming decade.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


这是一篇很好但同时又使人不安的文章。提到大熊猫的保护更使濒临灭绝物种比如说白鱀豚的问题更为严重。非常感谢全球对大熊猫的关心, 它已成为众所周知的形象。鲸类一直以来都是国际的焦点。虽然对关切白鱀豚的存亡可能是太迟了,但是人们对关心鲸类的程度却超出了其他“不是销售热点”的物种。尽管如此,这对生态系统的功能还是至关重要的。我不希望低估物种保护者所作出的努力。但是,我们对挑选“胜利者(可爱和得到保护的动物)和失败者(被忽略的物种)”的倾向却忽略了生态系统的复杂性。

Picking winners and losers

This is a very good and unsettling article. But bringing up the panda highlights a problem which goes beyond the sad extinction of the Baiji.
Thanks to global attention, the panda has become a very recognisable image. Cetaceans have also been in the international spotlight for a long time. And although it may well be too late for the Baiji, cetaceans receive more attention than less 'marketable' species, that are nonetheless, vital for a functioning ecosystem.
I do not wish to underestimate the efforts and benefits of species conservation. But our tendency to pick 'winners and losers' ignores the complexity of ecological systems.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





A typical case of "the survival of the fittest?"

Ironically, this is probably a typical case for the theory of the survival of the fittest.

But this sends out a warning signal that all species, with no exception of human beings, have to adapt themselves to the worsening enviroment to just keep alive.

Not sure when it will be the end of the world for human beiings, but no doubt bad environment contributes partyly to cancers and other incurable diseases.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





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Something I want to say about the baiji search expedition

I look upon this issue very optimistically, always taking on the role of someone spreading the word about this. My hope is that as more people come to understand and care, even if the baiji has disappeared from this world, still it cannot disappear in our memories, and it is in the lesson we've learned: the protection of the Yangtze's aquatic life forms and the Yangtze's ecology are not only about the protection and administration of the habitat of the baiji and other rare aquatic species in the Yangtze, but even more about the proection of mankind's own home. Considering a 39-day survey, and not finding a single baiji, everyone is very sad. Speaking frankly, if we can catch a live animal, then we can truly do a good job of saving it. Everyone should consider: when Qiqi lived in the institute for baiji for 23 years, did everyone know about the work of those experts? I don't want to say the benefits the country derives from this are very obvious, and there are a lot of aspects to it which anger people, but this does not get rid of a country's determination to save a species. What I want to say is that we really have not expended every effort to save the baiji. I need a powerful organisation to come support our conference on the ecology of the Yangtze, and the Yangtze Environment Forum also needs everyone's support. The Yangtze Environment Forum (www.cjhj.org) hopes that it can encourage everyone to pay attention to the ecology of the Yangtze. Contact telephone: (86)+15900783739


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



[email protected]

Something to say

Last night i happened to watched the programme "Dajiatan" in CCTV10. The head of "Research Team of Baiji" Ms Chen was interviewed in it. I could not sleep after watching it. Why people did not make effort to safe Baiji when there were still hundreds left in the 80s last century? I was angry and doubted the Ms Chen's capability of doing this job. They wanted to find a partner for Qiqi long ago but hadn't been managed that. At that time there were hundreds of Baiji in Yangtze River but now there is nothing! It is such a tragic! I think if the government did a job on advertising about this before, the result might have been much better. I grow up along Yangtze River and did not know Baiji is on the list of threatened species and has died out until i watched the programme! i got up early this morning and searched articles about it. now i can hardly express my feelings. i wish Baiji can be found in the future!

Hanji Cheng
[email protected]

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Something have to say

I have watched "Dajiatan" and have realised that:
1. "Baiji" should not have been died out.
2. Relevant national departments in charge of endangered species should be mainly responsible for it.
3. Ms Chen who is heading the research team has direct responsibilities. She has her resolutions, passion, but is not a capable person, unfortunately!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



You have to try

As long as live Baiji exist, there is still hope. Whether or not their sperm can be obtained, we can try save the Baiji and other freshwater dolphin breeds through modern technology of conserving their DNA.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The Baiji should have been saved

This has made the news recently in the Uk. I was shocked enough to do some research, and found this article. I do wonder about the sensibility of the Chinese people (if there is such a word in Chinese) but was reassured to read some of the comments here. I very much hope a few individuals can be found, and that somehow the species can be saved.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The consequences will be worsen than we imagine

There are only 4 types of freshwater dolphin: the boto or Amazon river dolphins in the Amazon region, the Ganges River dolphin and Indus River dolphins in India, and the Baiji in the Yangtze River in China. For instance, the Giant Panda has several relatives in the bear family; Golden monkey has many relatives in the monkeys’ family, if they become extinct, at least will have some other close related species to keep and ponder on the past. However, Baiji doesn’t have any similar species in their family. Hence, we are unable to imagine they look alike in the event of extinction.