Wednesday, December 13, 2006

China fears that Yangtze river dolphin is now extinct

A RARE freshwater dolphin unique to the Yangtze River is almost certainly extinct, conservationists said yesterday.

A major expedition launched to search for the animal failed to find a single survivor.

The dolphin, the baiji, traditionally thought by the Chinese to be a river god, used to live along China's longest river, but development along its banks, overfishing and shipping have proved lethal.

The shy and nearly blind animal is one of the world's oldest dolphin species, dating back about 20 million years.

Scientists believe their disappearance would be the first instance of a large aquatic mammal being driven to extinction since hunting killed off the Caribbean monk seal in the 1950s.

"Unfortunately the baiji is functionally extinct. We did not see any animals in the river," August Pfluger, the chief executive of the foundation, said.

"If there are maybe one or two or three left in the river, we don't believe that they have any chance to survive. We were obviously too late. For me, it's a tragedy in terms of conservation. We lost the race. It is a tragedy, a loss not only for China, but for the entire world. We are all incredibly sad."
The long-beaked baiji is related to other freshwater species found in the Mekong, Indus, Ganges and Amazon rivers.

In the late 1970s, scientists believed several hundred baiji were still alive, but by 1997 a survey listed just 13 sightings. The last confirmed sighting was in 2004 and the last captive baiji, Qi Qi, died in 2002.

It is currently listed as a critically endangered species - one facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild - on the World Conservation Union's "red list".

Craig Hilton-Taylor, the red list officer at the union, said: "It is certainly a very sad and unfortunate story."

However, he added: "If there is a possibility that there are still a few animals left, we cannot declare it extinct until we are certain that the last known individual has died."

The Chinese government had set up a reserve in a lake in Hubei province to look after captured baiji, but failed to find any.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"