Sunday, March 26, 2006

Could China's economical success destroyed endangered dolphin specie?

A team of scientists is to scan 1,000 miles of China's Yangtse River to see if its unique species of dolphin is the first member of the family of porpoises, dolphins and whales to have become extinct.
Using binoculars and underwater microphones, experts from Britain, the United States and China will spend eight weeks this autumn surveying the newly industrialised habitat of the white river dolphin.

A pilot project that began a week ago has failed to find one, leading to fears that the dolphin, or baiji as it is known in Chinese, has succumbed to the country's rapid economic growth.

If a few are found, there are plans to move them to a nature reserve in the middle stretches of the river.

"This is the first full survey for nearly 10 years," the British project manager, Leigh Barrett, said. "We don't know if we will find any baiji, or even if it is safe to move them, but we are hoping that this project will give us the information we need."

As an industrial haze and the brown Yangtse waters lapped the sides of the project's research vessel, the dangers facing marine life were clear to see.

Among other creatures at risk is the finless porpoise, also unique to the Yangtse and the world's only freshwater porpoise.

The dolphins have already had to evolve to survive. Distinguished by their white bellies and long snouts, they have small eyes and see little, relying on sonar waves to navigate in the murky, silted waters. Their main foes are the queues of cargo ships plying the river, whose propellers snare them and whose noise disorientates them.

They also share their home with the 400 million people who live along the river's banks.
Wang Ming, the research director at the Institute of Hydrobiology in Wuhan and the world's leading baiji expert, says the animal was never hunted because of its significance in Chinese poetry and mythology.

According to the story, the dolphin was a beautiful maiden, kidnapped from the bank by the dragon who lived in its waters. When her father dived in to rescue her, he was turned into a finless porpoise.

The 1990s survey found 13 of the dolphins, leading him to conclude that there were fewer than 100 of the creatures left, but only a handful have been seen in the past few years.

The last sighting, of a mother and child, was in May last year.

In the early 1980s, pods of 10 and more would be seen basking in stretches nearby.

Dr Wang peered through the haze at the factories lining the riverside and said that, if any remained, the only hope was to transfer them to a nature reserve already established in an ox-bow lake.

"We agreed that the Yangtse now has so much activity going on there was no way to stop it," he said. "But to catch them we need to find them first."

Miss Barrett, a wildlife film-maker, has a similar fascination with the creature, having first encountered it in a biology lecture at Royal Holloway College, London.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"