The Yangtze River dolphin or baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) was an obligate river dolphin endemic to the middle-lower Yangtze River [Changjiang] drainage and the neighbouring Qiantang River in eastern China. The baiji experienced a precipitous population decline throughout the late twentieth century: there were thought to be about 400 individuals in the population in 1980 but only 13 were counted in 1997-1999. The primary factor driving this decline was probably unsustainable by-catch in local fisheries, particularly rolling hook long-lines, together with wider-scale habitat degradation. The last verified baiji reports are of a pregnant female found stranded at Zhenjiang in November 2001, and an individual photographed in the Tongling River section in May 2002. An extensive six-week multi-vessel visual and acoustic survey in 2006 that covered the entire historical range of the baiji in the main Yangtze channel failed to find any evidence that the species survives.
Further interview surveys conducted in 27 Yangtze fishing communities from Yichang to Shanghai in 2008 also found little evidence of any surviving baiji individuals. This represents not only the first documented global extinction of a ‘megafaunal’ vertebrate for over 50 years, but also the disappearance of an entire mammal family (Lipotidae).
Although considerable protective legislation was put in place from the late 1970s onwards in China, notably laws banning harmful fishing practices and the establishment of a series of reserves in sections of the main Yangtze channel, regulations were difficult or impossible to enforce and in situ reserves proved unable to provide adequate protection for these animals. More intensive species-specific recovery strategies received considerable national and international attention, with extensive deliberation about an ex situ recovery programme that aimed to establish a translocated breeding population of baiji under semi-natural conditions at the Tian’e-Zhou oxbow lake in Hubei Province. Numerous conservation recommendations for the baiji were developed, notably in four major baiji-focused workshop reports.
The issue of how to save the baiji was also discussed in two IUCN Species Survival Commission documents, at several small-scale or more general workshops and meetings, and in many scientific publications. However, for some years there were differing opinions about the best conservation strategy to pursue (in situ vs. ex situ, including the semi-natural reserve). This, combined with the overwhelming and escalating degradation of the baiji’s habitat (the Yangtze being “Golden Waterway of China”), meant that only minimal financial or logistical support for baiji conservation ever materialised. A renewed international initiative to generate momentum and increased international support for a carefully managed semi-natural recovery programme at Tian’e-Zhou from 2004 onwards, involving development of a detailed budget and implementation plan and extensive fund-raising efforts, was unsuccessful because the species had already disappeared.
The extinction of the baiji was a national tragedy for China and an international disgrace. An earlier, more dynamic response to the species’ decline, both inside China and from the international community, might have kept some individuals alive today. Now, having lost the battle to save the baiji, the next challenge is to prevent the Yangtze River population of finless porpoises from experiencing a similar fate.
The above provides a background to the baiji and its conservation. The CSG posts news items and updates about conservation of the Yangtze finless porpoise and these can be found on our News page or at the following links:
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