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Investigating the Survival of the Baiji in the Yangtze River

Aims

Establish whether there are any functioning baiji populations remaining in the Yangtze river basin and conduct appropriate conservation actions.

Image | Yangtze river dolphin / baiji | © Stephen Leatherwood |
Location
Yangtze river basin, Eastern China
Species Background

Endemic to the lower and middle Yangtze river basin in eastern China, and according to Chinese legend is the reincarnation of a drowned princess. The baiji is known to have diverged from other river dolphins some 20-25 million years ago, and is considered to be the sole representative of an entire family of cetaceans, the Lipotidae. It didn’t need to evolve good sight as it lives in muddy water, so it doesn’t look like a typical dolphin. Only a few pairs and individuals have been seen over the past 15 years. It is considered Critically Endangered by the IUCN although declared functionally extinct in 2007.

Map & Range
Species Threats

The Yangtze river is one of the world’s busiest and most degraded waterways, heavily used for transport, fishing and industry. Dolphins have died getting caught in gill-nets, which prevents them surfacing to get oxygen so they drown. Other dolphins were killed by boats and engineering explosions. The Three Gorges Dam reduced the amount of fish that dolphins had access to, and remaining individuals ended up so far apart from each other that they couldn’t reproduce.

Project actions
  • For more than 20 years it was intended to remove and translocate baiji from the Yangtze to a safer environment and establish a closely monitored captive breeding programme
  • Clarify the factors responsible for declines of the baiji
  • Conduct an intensive series of interviews with around 600 fishermen across in over three months in 2008 to gather extensive new data on past baiji deaths associated with different types of fishing gear, as well as the bigger impacts of large fishing operations on other species
  • Investigate the possible survival of baiji individuals in the Yangtze basin through these interviews and surveys
Achievements
  • The only active effort to establish a captive population was in 1995, when the Chinese River Dolphin Research Group moved a baiji to the Tian'e-Zhou reserve. Sadly she died a few months later after getting tangled in a net, probably trying to escape the reserve
  • The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and regional Yangtze authorities imposed restrictions on harmful fishing and waste discharge in the river, and officially designated a series of reserves for baiji recovery in the main Yangtze channel between Honghu and Zhejiang
  • In November and December 2006, an international range-wide survey led by Dr Samuel Turvey of ZSL failed to find any surviving animals in the Yangtze basin
  • It was declared functionally extinct in 2007
  • In 2008 a project was set up to identify the factors that drive Yangtze freshwater cetaceans to extinction, combining outputs from a 2004 workshop, the pilot baiji survey (early 2006) and the Yangtze Freshwater Dolphin Expedition (end of 2006)
  • “Witness to Extinction” was written by Dr Turvey and published in 2009, which chronicles his last-ditch struggle to save the baiji and charts its tragic demise
Future Actions

1) Investigate the failures of the baiji conservation process, in order to to support the appropriate and timely set-up of conservation projects in the future, both within China and across the world

2) Recognise and identify management decisions that impeded direct conservation action and funding for the baiji recovery programme over the past few decades, which ultimately led to the baiji’s decline and probable extinction

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Project Collaborators
Related Media
Everyone loves dolphins, don’t they? And the baiji—the Yangtze River Dolphin—was so beautiful. Along the river, legends abound of its origin from the metamorphosis of a tragically d...
Here is the final blog from EDGE’s Dr Sam Turvey about his surveys along the Yangtze River in China, trying to discover the cause behind the disappearance of the baiji, and declines in ...
Here is the third blog from EDGE's Dr Sam Turvey about his surveys along the Yangtze River in China, trying to discover the cause behind the disappearance of the baiji, and declines other...

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