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Too late for the baiji?

By on January 17, 2007 in EDGE Updates, Focal species, Uncategorized, Yangtze river dolphin

The Yangtze River dolphin or baiji, long considered to be one of the world’s rarest and most threatened mammals, may have finally disappeared forever. This tragedy represents the loss of an animal that represented over 20 million years of unique evolution, the top predator of its ecosystem, and the focus of many Chinese legends. The probable disappearance of an entire mammal family, this is only the fourth time a mammal extinction of this magnitude has taken place since Europeans started to spread out around the globe over 500 years ago. It may represent a tremendous loss to global biodiversity.

What makes this even worse is that more could – and should – have been done to try and fight the baiji’s extinction when there was still a chance, by the international conservation community. The baiji was allowed to slip towards extinction despite many international conservation organisations expressing their alleged commitment to try and save the species. Talking is easy; sadly, nobody ever really attempted to do anything more. The sorry saga of conservation inactivity surrounding the baiji has been described by Randall Reeves, head of the IUCN’s Cetacean Specialist Group, as ‘a national tragedy and an international disgrace’.

I have spent much of the last two years trying to raise funds for the baiji recovery programme advocated by both Chinese and international conservationists, which planned to translocate the last few remaining dolphins to the Tian’e-Zhou semi-natural reserve – a 21 km oxbow lake described as being like ‘a miniature Yangtze’. Incredibly, it proved almost impossible to persuade any major conservation organisations to offer any concrete support beyond organising another meeting, and to actually follow through with their recommendations to actively try and save the species from dying out.

This autumn, I was a participant in the range-wide baiji survey which spent six weeks travelling up and down the Yangtze from Yichang to Shanghai, to try and find out whether any baiji still survived in the river. We arrived in Wuhan at the end of October, when the weather was still deceptively warm and the mood was still deceptively optimistic. Our excitement increased when we were told about recent possible baiji sightings from the Honghu river section upstream of Wuhan – amazingly, it seemed that a mother and calf had been seen in the spring, along with a second sighting of a solitary animal a few weeks later in the same area. Surely we would find some baiji still alive in the river, and finally be able to persuade the conservation community to act in time to save them?

Nothing turned out as it should have done. Almost as soon as we left Wuhan, the weather turned foul – fog hugged the river and the biting cold snapped at our fingers and toes, making us run for warming cups of green tea as soon as our survey shifts were over. Massive amounts of both legal and illegal fishing were being carried out everywhere; fishermen using rolling hooks, banned for two decades because their harmful hook lines are notorious for entangling and killing baiji, would regularly stop to try and sell us fish, and there seemed to be as much fishing going on in the so-called baiji reserves as there was in unprotected stretches. The river itself was like nothing I have ever seen before; a motorway for thousands of freight vessels, lined with factories pouring pollutants into its waters, and full of sand dredgers ripping up the riverbed to make concrete for China’s booming economy. But despite these conditions, each day we still saw several finless porpoises – the other cetacean species found in the Yangtze – and nothing else. With every passing day, our hopes faded and slowly died. Could there really be nothing left of the baiji? Had we really just lost the species forever, maybe missing it by as little as a few months?

It’s difficult to describe how we felt when our survey boats passed once more beneath the Wuhan bridge in mid December, and the survey finally came to an end. Had all of our efforts to help the baiji been for nothing? My emptiness was mixed with anger – after the last baiji surveys in 1997-1999, when only a handful of animals had been seen, why had conservationists waited almost a decade before even trying to look for them again, let alone doing anything more active to save them from extinction?

Is it possible that we missed any baiji during the survey, and that the last few survivors could still be saved? I don’t know. We weren’t able to survey many of the Yangtze’s many side-channels, or go into any of the tributaries which empty into the main channel. Although none of these areas could support a viable baiji population for any length of time, a handful of dolphins, separated from one another and clinging onto survival, could – just maybe – still be hanging on away from the main shipping lanes. If any baiji still exist, we have to find them straight away. Even if they don’t, we still have very little idea of what exactly it was that pushed the species over the edge. The prime suspect is accidental mortality in fishing gear – both from illegal rolling hook lines and electro-fishing, and from legal gill-nets which are the main cause of mortality in other highly threatened dolphins and porpoises such as the vaquita (another Top 100 EDGE species in urgent need of conservation attention). However, we have little real information about what happened to the species. Even if the baiji has already gone, we need to know what wiped it out in order to know how to conserve the Yangtze finless porpoise – which is also declining, and is in real danger of becoming the second baiji – as well as other threatened freshwater dolphins.

The only option left is to talk to as many fishermen as possible, as soon as possible. Local fishermen spend all of their time on the river, so they will have a much better idea than we do if any baiji are left. Preliminary discussions with some of the fishermen we met during the recent survey showed that they knew what baiji were, and out of the handful of people we spoke to, one had seen a baiji as recently as four years ago. A fishermen survey would also give us the first meaningful data about how many baiji have been killed in different types of fishing gear in the past, and also about the status of many of the Yangtze’s other highly threatened species. In particular, the Yangtze was formerly home to what might have been the world’s biggest freshwater fish – the Chinese paddlefish, which could reach over 7 metres in length. Although little was ever done to save the baiji from extinction, at least its fate was debated endlessly by conservationists, whereas somehow the giant paddlefish has slipped towards extinction unnoticed. It was apparently last seen in 2003, and like the baiji it might also already be extinct.

A series of interviews with fishermen across the baiji’s former range, including in the side-channels and tributaries we weren’t able to survey this autumn, has to be carried out straight away. I can’t hold out any hope that any baiji are left, but if they are, this will be the only way to even begin to save them. Even if the species is already gone, talking to local people along the Yangtze about conservation is essential. This is the only way to try and preserve the last fragments of what used to be Asia’s most magnificent freshwater ecosystem. Sam Turvey

See for more information on the recent range-wide baiji survey.