Grainne Ryder and Stephen Thomas
August 17, 2007
The Yangtze river dolphin (or baiji) made headlines last week after an international team of researchers announced the “functional extinction” of the species. The announcement came after the team spent six weeks combing the entire known range of the baiji in the 1669-kilometre main channel of China’s Yangtze River.
“There has always been a lot of focus on saving the whale, but that has led to these range-restricted shallow-water cetaceans slipping through the net,” said Wang Ding, a co-author of the report and deputy director of the Institute of Hydrobiology under the Academy of Sciences.
At one time the baiji numbered in the thousands, but scientists have warned it was doomed for years. Recent attempts to preserve the species proved to be too little, too late. Industrial pollution, heavy river traffic and the construction of the Three Gorges dam are thought to have driven them to extinction.
“It’s a relic species, more than 20 million years old, that persisted through the most amazing kinds of changes in the planet,” said marine biologist Barbara Taylor at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service. “It’s been here longer than the Andes Mountains have been on Earth.”
Scientists around the world have expressed their dismay at the loss of such a unique and charismatic species. Quoted in the Guardian last week, Dr Sam Turvey of the Zoological Society of London, and member of the research team, said, “This extinction represents the disappearance of a complete branch of the evolutionary tree of life and emphasizes that we have yet to take full responsibility in our role as guardians of the planet.”
Although researchers could not be absolutely sure that no baiji still remain in the wild, they say there is little hope for even its short-term survival given the continued decline of the Yangtze ecosystem — home to roughly 10 percent of the world’s human population.
Categories: Three Gorges Probe