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 asking is could this tragedy have been prevented?
The failure to find any sign of the baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) during last year’s Yangtze River survey has forced Sam and fellow survey participants to concede that the species may now be extinct. If true, this makes the baiji is the first large vertebrate to disappear from the planet for more than fifty years, and the only species of cetacean (whale, dolphin or porpoise) to be driven to extinction by human activity.
The scientific paper detailing what went wrong for the baiji is published today in the Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters. The paper also describes the November-December 2006 survey, during which optimistic conservation biologists hoped to capture the few remaining baiji and translocate them to a protected part of the river system. The intensive six week survey covered the entire historical range of the species in the main channel of the Yangtze River in eastern China yet failed to find a single individual.
It is believed that the main factor responsible for the disappearance of the baiji was the accidental death of large numbers of dolphins in fishing gear, rather than active persecution. However, what saddens the EDGE team the most is that the baiji could still be here today if only the conservation community had acted sooner. Thirty years ago the population stood at 400, and during the 1980s and 90s both Chinese and international scientists consistently recommended the translocation of baiji from the river to a safer environment. However, despite these repeated and specific recommendations, nearly all conservation work was limited to a series of surveys conducted from the late 1970s onwards. Although they provided valuable data on the baiji’s decline, in the end, additional surveys were not a solution to the problem and they failed to save the species from extinction.
We will never know for sure if we could have saved the baiji, but at least we could have tried. Now, all that is left is hope. It is possible that a few dolphins may have been mised by the survey team. While there’s a chance that baiji are still around we need to act quickly. We are extremely grateful to everyone who has donated to the baiji project over the past 7 months, but we urgently need more funds to allow Sam to return to China and carry out a wide-range series of interviews with fishermen along the Yangtze. This research has two main objectives: 1) to determine how and why conservation efforts failed in this case, and 2) to compile as much information as possible on the life and death of the baiji while that knowledge still exists in the living memory of fishermen along the river. The river survey will probably also provide the last, best chance to document any possible surviving baiji.
Sam recently commented to the media, “The loss of such a unique and charismatic species is a shocking tragedy. The Yangtze River dolphin was a remarkable mammal that separated from all other species over twenty million years ago. This extinction represents the disappearance of a complete branch of the evolutionary tree of life and emphasises that we have yet to take full responsibility in our role as guardians of the planet.”