Pollution Leaves Beloved Dolphin Of Yangtze 'Functionally' Extinct

This Yangtze River dolphin, or baiji, was being protected in captivity in Wuhan, China, but died in 2002.
This Yangtze River dolphin, or baiji, was being protected in captivity in Wuhan, China, but died in 2002. (By Hao Tongqian -- Associated Press)

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By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 14, 2006

SHANGHAI, Dec. 13 -- For millions of years, the Chinese river dolphin basked in the waters of the mighty Yangtze, a gray phantom more than six feet long with a sharp snout and tiny eyes. The endearing creature, which the Chinese call baiji, was the stuff of legend, a goddess to some, and the delight of fishermen who occasionally saw one break the water's surface.

But China's relentless growth closed in on the baiji over the past 25 years, fouling its habitat with sewage and filling the Yangtze with ships whose propellers disrupted the dolphin's sonar-based sensory system. The numbers declined year after year, until scientists estimated recently that only 50 were left along the river's 1,500-mile main course through central China. The baiji, they warned, risked extinction.

News came Wednesday that they were right: Development in China has in all likelihood extinguished the baiji, erasing the species from the planet. An expedition of some of the world's leading experts, equipped with sophisticated viewing equipment and ultra-sensitive microphones, announced it had ended its mission after five weeks on the river without detecting any sign of surviving baijis.

"It's possible that there are two or three left that we missed somehow, but functionally they are extinct," said August Pfluger, a Swiss conservationist whose Baiji.org Foundation was one of the expedition's sponsors. "It's finished. This is very, very sad."

Pfluger said the baiji's disappearance is a testament to the filthiness of China's rivers and lakes -- the government recently estimated that 70 percent are unacceptably polluted -- just as the threat to giant pandas was evidence of man's incursion into the wooded mountainsides of central China. The difference, he said, is that world conservationists and the Chinese government mobilized to save the panda, but the baiji was allowed to wither away.

"It's nobody's fault," he said. "You can't point to somebody and blame him. In the middle of the most flourishing economy in the world, a little dolphin, nobody cares."

Actually, the baiji was not so little. Fully grown, it measured 6 feet 5 inches to 8 feet long and weighed up to 220 pounds. Its snout was long and narrow. Almost sightless, it relied on sonar-type signals to navigate the Yangtze and sense the presence of the fish that were its main diet.

Scientists estimated the baiji migrated up the Yangtze from the East China Sea as far back as 20 million years ago. It was one of four species of dolphins that make fresh water their exclusive habitat. The three others have survived in the Ganges and Indus rivers on the Indian subcontinent and the Amazon in South America.

As China developed economically, pressure on the baiji grew swiftly. Industrial and residential waste flowed into the Yangtze. The riverbed was repeatedly dragged and reinforced with concrete. Ship traffic multiplied, and the size of the boats grew. Fishermen employed wider and more lethal nets, robbing the dolphin of its food and occasionally killing one in the catch.

Wang Ding, a Chinese expert from the Wuhan Institute of Hydrobiology known as "Mr. Baiji," told reporters that the population had already dwindled to 400 by the 1980s. By 1997, a systematic count by the Agriculture Ministry turned up 13. A four-boat survey in 1999 saw four. The last time anyone made a confirmed sighting was last summer, Pfluger said. On Wednesday, the latest exploration, by two ships with scientists from six nations, turned in its count: zero.

Throughout the trip, experts from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Hubbs-SeaWorld Institute, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, the Japanese Fisheries Agency and Wang's Wuhan Institute manned giant binoculars and underwater microphones to probe for signs of surviving baijis.

"We had some of the best scientists in the world, real experts, and I was the only one who has actually seen one in the wild," Pfluger said, recalling a sighting in 1997 during the first such expedition. "When I saw this animal then, it was very emotional."

As the population headed toward extinction in recent years, scientists and conservationists had argued over the best way to preserve the baiji.

Chinese officials suggested capturing as many as possible and moving them to a 15-mile-long offshoot of the Yangtze that would be protected from contamination. Other experts doubted that could be done, noting that baijis do not instinctively breathe and probably would perish if sedated. Meanwhile, a baiji that was being preserved in captivity died in 2002.

The arguments seemed to turn moot Wednesday. Wang, though, held out hope, however remote, that some baijis may have survived undetected and could still be rescued. He told Chinese reporters that if 20 or so could somehow be found and moved into a preserve, the species could be saved.

But for Pfluger, 45, an economist by training and a longtime conservationist by avocation, it was time to move on to the finless porpoise, another rare and threatened species in the Yangtze.

Chinese scientists estimated in 1993 that 2,700 finless porpoises lived in the river. Fewer than 1,000 live there now, they have concluded, and the just-finished expedition saw fewer than 400. To prevent their extinction, Chinese conservationists have established a colony of about 30 in a nature preserve -- well away from the polluted river -- and are hoping they can reproduce outside their natural habitat.

"Their numbers are declining at an alarming rate," Wang said in the expedition's announcement. "If we do not act soon, they will become a second baiji."


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