Three Gorges Probe

Time running out for Yangtze dolphin

Kelly Haggart

July 5, 2002


Chinese scientists racing to save the world’s most endangered marine mammal from extinction may have only three to five years left before their efforts are futile, People’s Daily reports.


Chinese scientists racing to save the Yangtze River dolphin from extinction may have only three to five years left before their efforts are futile, People’s Daily reports.

Time is running out for the baiji (“white-fin” dolphin), an ancient species considered a “living fossil” virtually unchanged by 20 million years of evolution. Dolphin experts are pleading with the Beijing government for more funds to support their last-ditch attempts to give the species a chance of survival in a nature reserve, the newspaper said in a June 13 report.

The scientists hope to find enough baiji in the river to establish a captive breeding program in the protected environment of an oxbow lake near Shishou city, about 300 kilometres upstream of Wuhan. However, the dolphins are difficult to spot in the murky Yangtze, and most capture expeditions, which are expensive to mount, have failed in the past.

Zhu Zuoyan, a zoologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, appealed in March for help from China’s military to pull the world’s most endangered marine mammal back from the brink of extinction. Scientists need the assistance of naval vessels and air-force helicopters to locate baiji and move them to the Shishou sanctuary, the Xinhua news agency quoted Mr. Zhu as saying.

Qiqi, the only baiji held in captivity, has lived at the Institute of Hydrobiology in Wuhan since he was accidentally caught by a fisherman in 1980 when he was about two years old. Researchers who have gathered much valuable information about the baiji by observing Qiqi for more than two decades are disappointed never to have found him a mate, and he is now approaching the end of his lifespan.

Extinction occurs long before the last representative of a species dies, Mr. Zhu pointed out in the People’s Daily article. To survive, a species must be able to adapt to changes in its environment, and once its population dwindles, it may lose the genetic diversity that enables it to recover.

The baiji, which lives only in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, is one of just five river-dolphin species in the world – that is, freshwater dolphins that never enter the sea. The baiji population, estimated at 400 in the early 1980s, was down to “only a few tens of individuals” in 2000, according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN), which believes “there is little hope for the survival of this species.”

Chinese experts also fear that this “national treasure” – revered as a river goddess and affectionately nicknamed “the panda of the Yangtze” – will become the first member of the river-dolphin family to be driven to extinction as a result of human activities, People’s Daily said. Those activities include the pollution of the Yangtze, and the construction of dams and shiplocks that have fragmented the baiji population and blocked access to tributaries and lakes where they traditionally caught fish and nurtured their young, the newspaper said.

Historically, baiji were found as far upstream as Yichang, near the modern-day site of the Three Gorges dam. But the Gezhouba dam 40 km downstream prevented the dolphins from swimming further upriver after it was completed in 1988.

Experts say that changes to the river caused by the Three Gorges dam are likely to put further stress on the baiji’s fragile habitat. According to one detailed account of efforts to save the baiji, scientists at Wuhan’s Institute of Hydrobiology forecast in 1987 that “water released from the dam will scour the riverbed and wash the sand beaches and islands where baiji now feed and reproduce downstream into heavily populated and polluted areas. Forced to follow their migrating habitat, baiji will find themselves in areas where they are more likely to be killed by boat collisions and fishing gear. The dam may also depress water temperatures for a month or more during the spring baiji mating period, possibly decreasing their already marginal reproductive success.”

For its part, IUCN’s species survival commission was scathing in a report released two years ago on the dolphin’s gloomy prospects. “The baiji’s imminent extinction is a national tragedy and an international disgrace,” members of the commission wrote. “The story of the baiji’s decline, tied as it is to the rampant degradation of a once-productive river system, needs to be told and retold.”

The deteriorating status of Asia’s freshwater dolphins “is one of the most urgent conservation problems facing the world today,” IUCN said in a news release. “Its causes are partly local and related to the fact that growing human populations are competing with the animals for water and other resources. But the international community is also implicated through its support for projects that ignore the fragility, complexity and vitality of natural freshwater systems.”


Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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