boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

Ancient species of dolphins believed extinct

Qi Qi, a rare Baiji dolphin rescued from the Yangtzi River in 1980, was housed at Wuhan Baji Aquarium where she lived for 22 years. (AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

BEIJING -- A species of rare, nearly blind white dolphins that survived for millions of years is effectively extinct, an international expedition said yesterday after ending a fruitless six-week search of its Yangtze River habitat.

The dolphins, known as baiji, would be the first large aquatic mammal driven to extinction since hunting and overfishing killed off the Caribbean monk seal in the 1950s.

For the baiji, the culprit was a degraded habitat -- busy ship traffic, which confounds the sonar the dolphin uses to find food, and overfishing and pollution in the Yangtze waters of eastern China, the expedition said.

"The baiji is functionally extinct. We might have missed one or two animals but it won't survive in the wild," said August Pfluger, a Swiss naturalist who helped put together the expedition. "We are all incredibly sad."

The baiji dates back 20 million years. Chinese called it the "goddess of the Yangtze." For China, its disappearance symbolizes how unbridled economic growth is changing the country's environment irreparably, some environmentalists say.

"It's a tremendously sad day when any species goes extinct. It becomes more of a public tragedy to lose a large, charismatic species like the river dolphin," said Chris Williams, manager of river basin conservation for the World Wildlife Fund in Washington.

Randall Reeves, chairman of the Swiss-based World Conservation Union's Cetacean Specialist Group, who took part in the Yangtze mission, said expedition participants were surprised at how quickly the dolphins disappeared.

"Some of us didn't want to believe that this would really happen, especially so quickly," he said. "This particular species is the only living representative of a whole family of mammals. This is the end of a whole branch of evolution."

The damage to the baiji's habitat is also affecting the Yangtze finless porpoise, whose numbers have fallen to below 400, the expedition found.

"The situation of the finless porpoise is just like that of the baiji 20 years ago," the group said in a statement citing Wang Ding, a Chinese hydrobiologist and co-leader of the expedition. "Their numbers are declining at an alarming rate."

Pfluger said China's Agriculture Ministry had hoped the baiji would be another panda, an animal brought back from the brink of extinction in a highly marketable effort that bolstered the country's image.

The expedition was the most professional and meticulous ever launched for the mammal, Pfluger said. The team of 30 scientists and crew from China, the United States, and four other countries searched a 1,000-mile, heavily trafficked stretch of the Yangtze, where the baiji once thrived.

Around 400 baiji were believed to be living in the Yangtze in the early 1980s, when China was just launching the free-market reforms that have transformed its economy. The last full-fledged search, in 1997, yielded 13 confirmed sightings.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives