THE Yangtze River dolphins have a rare and unwanted distinction. The grey-white, long-beaked mammal looks likely to become the world’s first cetacean – the family of whales, dolphins and porpoises – to be made extinct by humans.
In the 1950s, up to 6000 baiji, as the dolphins are known in Chinese, swam in the Yangtze. Today fewer than 50 may survive. None has been seen since July last year, when a pair were spotted in Honghu Lake, part of the huge water system that winds out across the Yangtze plain.
In a specimen room at the Hydrobiology Institute in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the stuffed body of the only Yangtze River dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) to have lived in captivity lies among empty glass jars and cases displaying the bodies of infant dolphins and porpoises, floating in formaldehyde.
Qiqi spent 22 lonely years swimming around a 300sqm pool at the institute after he was found injured, the victim of illegal fishing, in a lake off the Yangtze in 1980. Scientists tried to catch a mate or companion for him, and their failure reflects the march of modernisation along the Yangtze that has transformed the dolphin’s muddy river home into its graveyard.
With little possibility of seeing in the turbid Yangtze waters, the dolphin – for centuries called the Goddess of the Yangtze and the subject of myths and legend – evolved a highly effective sonar above its beak. But the roar of marine traffic along one of China’s premier waterways effectively left it helpless.
Fishermen trapped the baiji in their nets; ships and tourist boats sucked them into their propellers; pollution poisoned their river home, and the huge Three Gorges Dam blocked their passage and harmed their environment – perhaps permanently.
“I am pessimistic,” said Hao Yujiang, a researcher at the institute. “It’s not possible to improve the environment of the river in the foreseeable future.”
Having virtually abandoned the baiji, scientists and environmentalists are now focusing on saving its cousin, the finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides). About 2700 porpoises lived along the Yangtze in 1991. They are now believed to number fewer than 1000, though researchers lack the funds to carry out a proper census.
Five of the porpoises, which are grey-brown and snub-nosed, swim in tanks at the Wuhan Institute. One is a new arrival, the first to be born in captivity.
The three-month-old male clings to his mother in her tank as his keepers purr like proud parents. The porpoises receive fresh carp several times a day and they eagerly pop their heads above the surface for a pat. The baby is likely to spend his life in the aquarium.
After years of campaigning, the institute, working with the World Wide Fund for Nature, has persuaded the local government to designate the nearby Tian’ezhou oxbow lake as a nature reserve. Already 23 porpoises have been moved to the lake, and the WWF hopes the porpoises will have a chance to thrive in its cleaner waters.
But the porpoises are at a disadvantage in a country that is destroying its environment almost faster than it is developing its economy.
Drastic measures are needed, and soon, the WWF and researchers say. “We need to protect the oxbow as a whole,” Mr Hao said. “Not just one species, but a whole ecosystem.”
The main opposition comes from local residents and officials. “What is more important – the survival of man or animals?” one farmer said, with a dismissive wave towards the Yangtze.