"Extinct" River Dolphin Spotted in China

Kevin Holden Platt in Beijing, China
for National Geographic News
August 31, 2007

A confirmed sighting of a baiji dolphin just months after it was declared "extinct" has prompted scientists to launch an against-all-odds plan to save the last of the rare Chinese river dwellers.

A team of marine-life scholars led by Wang Ding, a scientist at China's Institute of Hydrobiology, examined digital video footage recently taken along the eastern section of the Yangtze River. The video provides evidence of the survival of the baiji, or whitefin dolphin, the team confirmed.

Now experts at the institute are studying the feasibility of transporting the survivors to a natural preserve in a Noah's Ark-like operation, said Wang, one of China's leading authorities on the nearly decimated species.

"Functionally Extinct"?

The sighting provides a small ray of hope for scientists who had previously given up on the baiji.

A six-nation coalition of scientists, including Wang, spent five weeks late last year using high-performance optical instruments and underwater microphones to search the Yangtze, the baiji's sole habitat, for any signs of the species. (See a map of China.)

"The baiji is functionally extinct," concluded August Pfluger, head of the Swiss-based baiji.org foundation and co-organizer of the 2,200-mile (3,500-kilometer expedition), at the time.

"It is a tragedy, a loss not only for China, but for the entire world."

(Read: "China's Rare River Dolphin Now Extinct, Experts Announce" [December 14, 2006].)

According to Wang, baiji dolphins apparently lived and flourished in the Yangtze for more than 19 million years before humans arrived on the scene.

Beat Mueller is a geochemist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology who was also part of the 2006 baiji expedition.

"The disappearance and extinction of such highly evolved endemic mammals as the white Yangtze River dolphin [baiji], the finless porpoise, or the Chinese sturgeon from the Yangtze River can be attributed to a multitude of circumstances, such as the deterioration and loss of their natural habitats, overfishing of the river, the heavy freight ship traffic, and others," Mueller said.

Continued on Next Page >>


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