(Lipotes vexillifer)
According to Chinese legend, this graceful freshwater dolphin is the reincarnation of a drowned princess. It has been declared a national treasure of the highest order, but the Yangtze River is today one of the world’s busiest and most degraded waterways, and for over two decades conservationists have recommended that the species can only be protected by establishing an ex situ breeding population in an oxbow lake away from the main Yangtze channel. However, despite extensive debate by international conservation organisations, little active work has ever been carried out to protect the rapidly declining population. A recent range-wide survey was unable to find any surviving baiji left in the river, and the species in now probably extinct.
Urgent Conservation Actions
Identify the specific causes of the baiji’s decline, in order to better conserve other river dolphin species.
Middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River in China.
‘Baiji: The Yangtze River dolphin and other endangered animals of China’ by Zhou Kaiya and Zhang Xingduan (Stone Wall Press, 1991) states that a leather factory was opened in the late 1950s in Zhejiang (Jiangsu Province) to use the baiji’s skin as material for bags and gloves. Notices were put up in front of purchasing stations along the river: ‘Baiji and finless porpoises are purchased in large number for five to ten cents a kilo’. However, the leather factory was short-lived, as commercial baiji stocks were soon exhausted (unsurprisingly!).
Associated Blog Posts
27th Apr 09
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 m...  Read

9th Apr 09
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 ...  Read

22nd Jan 09
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...  Read

6th Jan 09
Here is the second blog from EDGE's Dr Sam Turvey about his surveys along the Yangtze River in China, trying to discover the cause behind the disappearance o...  Read

8th Dec 08
Here is the first 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...  Read

10th Apr 08
In the EDGE office we are anxiously awaiting the return of two of our team members - EDGE coordinator Carly Waterman and Dr. Sam Turvey have been in China c...  Read

7th Dec 07
It feels like history is repeating itself again in the Yangtze River. Earlier this year, scientists declared that the Yangtze River dolphin or baiji (Lipotes...  Read

12th Sep 07
The 2007 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is today being released, updating global understanding of the conservation status of the world’s plants and an...  Read

31st Aug 07
Only a few weeks after our research team sadly concluded that the baiji was probably extinct, we have received news that a baiji may have been seen – and f...  Read

8th Aug 07
After more than 20 million years on the planet it looks as if we have now lost the Yangtze River dolphin or baiji forever.  The question scientists are now...  Read

15th Jul 07
It’s a sad but true fact of life that much of a conservationist’s time is spent applying for funding. This week Sam has been focusing on writing grant a...  Read

6th Jun 07
The Qiantang River is a large river in eastern China that travels through Jiangxi and Zhejiang provinces. Although several hundred miles south of the Yangtze...  Read

Evolutionary Distinctiveness
Order: Cetacea
Family: Lipotidae
Traditionally river dolphins were grouped together into a single family, Platanistidae. However, genetic studies have shown that they represent a convergent group of only distantly related species, which are superficially similar to one another – for example, having reduced eyes – because they have each evolved in similar riverine environments. The baiji is now known to have diverged from other river dolphins some 20-25 million years ago, and is considered to be the sole representative of the Lipotidae, an entire family of cetaceans.
Head and body length:
Male: 141-216 cm
Female: 185-253 cm
Weight: Male: 42-125 kg
Female: 64-167 kg
The baiji is a graceful freshwater dolphin, characterised by a very long, slightly upturned beak and low triangular dorsal fin. Like other river dolphins, it has little need for vision in the muddy waters it inhabits, and as a result has tiny, barely functional eyes. It is pale blue-grey in colour with a white underside. The female is generally larger than the male.
Group size is usually small (four or five animals), although aggregations of up to eleven individuals have been seen in areas of abundant prey density. Sightings over the past 15 years have been extremely infrequent, typically of pairs or solitary individuals, reflecting the species' precipitous decline. Baiji feed in the early morning or during the night. There is evidence to suggest that baiji movements are linked to seasonal changes in water level, with individual baiji travelling up to several hundred kilometres upstream and downstream. Females reach maturity at eight years and give birth to one young approximately every two years. One captive male baiji, 'Qi Qi', survived in the Wuhan dolphinarium for over 22 years. The dolphins are not heavily scarred and there is little evidence of aggressive interactions either intraspecifically or with finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides asiaeorientalis), the other small cetacean present in the middle-lower Yangtze.
Typically found in confluences (where rivers or streams converge with the main Yangtze channel) and around sandbars with large eddies, where fish are more abundant.
Endemic to the Yangtze Basin in eastern China. The species has recently only been recorded from the 1700 km stretch of the middle and lower Yangtze River between Yichang and Shanghai; this historical distribution has always been downstream of the site of the Three Gorges Dam project. Until the 1950s the species was also present in the Qiantang River.
Population Estimate
A series of surveys conducted between 1997 and 1999 provided a minimum population estimate of only 13 individuals. Although a number of unverifiable opportunistic sightings have been reported by local fishermen over the past few years, a recent November-December 2006 international range-wide survey failed to find any surviving animals in the Yangtze, and it is likely that the species is now extinct.
Population Trend
Survey results indicate that numbers have declined rapidly and continuously over the past 30 years, from an estimated 400 animals in 1980 to only 100 animals in 1990. The population decrease has been estimated to be roughly 10% per annum.
The baiji is classified as Critically Endangered C2a(ii);D on the 2010 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. However, it was declared functionally extinct in 2007.
The main threats to the survival of the species are from the massive human impacts on the degraded Yangtze ecosystem. Over 400 million people live within the Yangtze River catchment, and the riverbanks are lined with large, industrialised cities. The river is one of the world’s busiest waterways, and is heavily utilised for transport, fishing and industrial development. Probably the major cause of mortality is accidental by-catch from gill-nets, and illegal rolling hook lines and electro-fishing (which were both banned two decades ago in China because they kill dolphins, but which are still widely used along the Yangtze). Other deaths have resulted from collisions with boats, and engineering explosions for maintaining navigation channels. The Yangtze’s environment has been further degraded by pollution, upstream damming and dredging. In particular, the recently completed Three Gorges Dam is likely to affect downstream fish stocks and further reduce areas of suitable habitat. Population fragmentation is also likely to have affected any surviving baiji individuals.
Conservation Underway
The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and regional Yangtze authorities have imposed restrictions on harmful fishing and waste discharge in the river, and have officially designated a series of baiji reserves in the main Yangtze channel between Honghu and Zhejiang. However, there has been little effort to enforce these conservation measures, and there is no apparent difference between levels of legal and illegal fishing in the baiji reserves and in the remainder of the river. Despite being listed on Appendix I of CITES and having been a protected species in China since 1975, surveys carried out over the past twenty years have indicated a continuous decline in population size.

This project is a continuation of the collaborative international 2004 'Workshop on conservation of the baiji and Yangtze finless porpoise', March 2006 pilot Yangtze baiji survey, and Nov-Dec 2006 Yangtze Freshwater Dolphin Expedition.

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

Conservation Proposed
Drastic conservation measures have been advocated since the mid 1980s, and Chinese and international scientists and policy makers have consistently recommended the removal and translocation of baiji from the Yangtze to a safer environment, to establish a closely monitored ex situ breeding programme under semi-natural conditions. This strategy has also been recommended at a series of international conservation workshops held in China and abroad over the past two decades. The initial site suggested for this breeding population was the Tongling semi-natural reserve in Anhui Province, but most recent attention has focused on the Tian'e-Zhou semi-natural reserve near Shishou City in Hubei Province, a 21 km oxbow which used to be part of the main Yangtze channel until 1972. Chinese authorities have also been keen to establish a baiji population in the Wuhan dolphinarium, which currently supports a breeding population of Yangtze finless porpoises.

Unfortunately, despite the apparent commitment expressed to the species by several major conservation organisations, almost no funds have ever been provided by the international community to initiate any active conservation action for the species. The only active efforts to establish an ex situ population were conducted in 1995, when a Chinese team translocated a single baiji to Tian'e-Zhou. Sadly this animal died a few months after being released in the reserve.
Associated EDGE Community members

Sam is an expert on past and present mammal extinctions and an active conservation co-ordinator.

Sam is a major promulgator of the plight of the Yangtze river dolphin and, incidentally, an expert on this incredibly rare species. He has led survey teams along the Yangtze river in the attempt to find any last remaining specimens.

Jay is a world leader in cetacean and pinniped conservation


Baiji Foundation
The baiji.org foundation is a small network of specialists uniting expertise in research and conservation and promoting the understanding and plight of both the Yangtze freshwater dolphin and the habitats in which they live. The foundation assists in all levels of conservation, from research, outreach programmes and fundraising to the support and implementation of various projects. Founded in early 2004 by a small group of committed Swiss individuals, the foundation aims to promote worldwide interest in freshwater dolphins and freshwater biodiversity.


(July 2012: Their website is currently being updated so there is no access)

Chen, P., P. Liu, R. Liu & Lin, K.1979. Distribution, ecology, behaviour and conservation of the dolphins of the middle reaches of Changjiang (Yangtze) River (Wuhan-Yueyang). Investigations on Cetacea 10: 87-103.

Nikaido, M., Matsuno, F., Hamilton, H., Brownell, R. L. Jr, Cao, Y., Ding, W., Zuoyani, Z., Shedlock, A. M., Fordyce, R. E., Hasegawa, M. and Okada, N. 2001. Retroposon analysis of major cetacean lineages: The monophyly of toothed whales and the paraphyly of river dolphins. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 98(13): 7384-7389

Smith, B.D., Zhou, K., Wang, D., Reeves, R.R., Barlow, J., Taylor, B.L. & Pitman, R. 2008. Lipotes vexillifer. In: IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.4. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 08 November 2010.

Turvey, S.T. 2008. Witness to extinction: how we failed to save the Yangtze River dolphin. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Turvey, S.T. 2010. Failure of the baiji recovery programme: conservation lessons for other endangered freshwater cetaceans. In: Ruiz, M. and Shostell, J.M. (Eds) Biology, evolution and conservation of river dolphins within South America and Asia: 377-394. Nova Science Publishers Inc., New York.

Turvey, S.T., Barrett, L.A., Hao, Y., Zhang, L., Zhang, X., Wang, X., Huang, Y., Zhou, K., Hart, T. and Wang, D. 2010. Rapidly shifting baselines in Yangtze fishing communities and local memory of extinct species. Conservation Biology 24: 778-787.

Turvey, S.T., Barrett, L.A., Hart, T., Collen, B., Hao, Y., Zhang, L., Zhang, X., Wang, X., Huang, Y., Zhou, K. and Wang, D. 2010. Spatial and temporal extinction dynamics in a freshwater cetacean. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 277: 3139-3147.

Turvey, S.T., Pitman, R.L., Taylor, B.L., Barlow, J., Akamatsu, T., Barrett, L.A., Zhao, X., Reeves, R.R., Stewart, B.S., Pusser, L.T., Wang, K., Wei, Z., Zhang, X., Richlen, M., Brandon, J.R. and Wang, D. 2007. First human-caused extinction of a cetacean species? Biology Letters 3: 537-540.

Zhou, K. 1986. A project to translocate the baiji, Lipotes vexillifer, from the main-stream of the Yangtze River to Tongling Baiji Semi-Nature Reserve. Aquatic Mammals 12.1: 21-24.

Zhou, K. and Li, Y. 1989. Status and aspects of the ecology and behaviour of the baiji, Lipotes vexillifer, in the lower Yangtze River. Occasional Papers of the IUCN Species Survival Commission 3: 86-91.

Zhou, K., Sun, J., Gao, A. and Würsig, B. 1998. Baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) in the lower Yangtze River; movements, numbers threats and conservation needs. Aquatic mammals 24(2): 123-132.

Distribution map based on data provided by the IUCN Global Mammal Assessment.

if you can provide new information to update this species account or to correct any errors, please email us at info@edgeofexistence.org

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