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Farewell to the baiji

Wang Yongchen

Readinch

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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还来得及拯救玉兰

很高兴看到有那么多人关注世界各地的其他同样受到威胁的不那么"迷人"的种族。这给我们一些正面的消息来安抚这个故事带来的悲伤情绪。在地球的保护前线,人们正进行着很多渐进的努力,更多详情可以参见http://www.chinadialogue.net/article/summary/1240-Bright-prospects-for-the-magnolia

另外,最近发布了三峡植物园的闭园通告。一个渔民曾不惜生命从大坝下保留了上千种珍惜植物,而五年后的今天却被迫闭园。在环保领域工作的人也许可以联系联系他,帮助他拯救这些植物,好让它们免遭灭绝。

Still time to save Magnolias

It is interesting that so many people are concerned about the other less 'glamorous' species that are also under threat in this and other areas of the world - and give some postive news to counter the sadness of this story.
There are progressive efforts being made on the plant conservation front, you can see http://www.chinadialogue.net/article/summary/1240-Bright-prospects-for-the-magnolia for more on that. Also there was recently announced the closure of the Three Gorges Botanic Garden, where a fish farmer gave up his livelihood to save thousands of rare plants from the dam but five years later has been forced to close the garden. Maybe some of you working in conservation can contact him and help to rescue the plants before they are also lost forever.


长江女神走了?!

这一消息令人心痛。我一直认为白鱀豚应该得到保护,但绝对没意识到其拯救计划一直没有像熊猫那样得到有效、适时的宣扬支持。那些生活在长江边的渔民,没有受到教育和宣传,从而停止可能杀害白鱀豚的活动。在此,我唯有希望类似悲剧不再重演。

由Ming Li翻译

Yangtze Godness is gone?!

It is overwhelmingly devastating to learn the heartbreaking news. I always knew Baiji should be protected, but never realized that its restoration program has NOT been effectively and promptly advertised and endorsed like the panda. And those fishermen, who live along the Yangze River, have not been educated or given a cause to immediately cease the Baiji-killing-fishing practice. I can only hope there won't be a replay of the tragedy.


令人落泪

在读这篇文章之前,我还不认识白鱀豚这种生物。读完之后,我不禁落泪,我为那些死去的白鱀豚的悲惨命运而感到震惊。它们本应该得到更好的保护。为什么不多花些精力进行圈养?如果它们得到圈养,或许它们还有继续生存的机会。白鱀豚的命运不应该如此悲惨。

This makes me cry.

Before I read this article, I did not even know what the Baiji was. After reading it, I was in tears; I was horrified at the gruesome fates of the ones discovered dead. This could have been saved. Why weren't more efforts made to put them in captivity? Had they been, the Baiji may still have had a chance. Even ignoring industry's hand in this, this should never have happened.


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