for National Geographic News
The rare Chinese river dolphin has gone extinct, according to scientists who could not find a single one of the animals during a six-week search on China's Yangtze River.
The small, nearly blind white dolphin, also known as the baiji, was nicknamed "the goddess of the Yangtze."
"It's possible that we missed one or two animals [during the search], but we can say the baiji is functionally extinct," August Pfluger, a Swiss economist-turned-naturalist who financed the expedition, said in a telephone interview from Wuhan, China.
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"If there are any baiji left in the river, they won't have any chance of survival."
If Pfluger's team is correct, the baiji will be the first large aquatic mammal to have gone extinct since hunting and overfishing killed off the Caribbean monk seal in the 1950s.
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The delicate dolphin, which dates back 20 million years, was found only in China's longest river, the Yangtze.
Using high-tech optical instruments and underwater microphones on two research vessels, the international team of 30 scientists and crew scoured almost 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) of the river, from Yichang near the Three Gorges Dam to Shanghai, for any signs of the dolphin.
"When we started, we were really optimistic about finding them, but as each day went by it became increasingly clear that there are no baiji left," Pfluger said.
The dolphin's population had plummeted from about 400 in the late 1980s to less than 100 in the mid-1990s.
The last search for the animal, in 1997, yielded 13 sightings. One fisher claimed to have seen a baiji in September 2004.
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