Most credible sighting since 2002
WUHU, Anhui province, CHINA––Declared “functionally extinct” in 2007, baiji dolphins may yet persist in the Yangtze River, says the China Biodiversity Conservation & Green Development Foundation.
But even if the baiji is no more, the chance that the species might be recovered is likely to give Yangtze recovery efforts a major boost.
“A recent image of the long-missing ‘Goddess of the Yangtze’ has sparked hope for its reappearance as Asia’s longest river recovers its ecological vitality,” wrote Xinhua news agency staff writer Luan Xiang on May 8, 2018.
The Xinhua news agency is the official voice of the Chinese federal government. As such, it reports what the Chinese federal government is prepared to accept in formulating public policy.
“Earlier this week,” Luan Xiang continued, “the China Biodiversity Conservation & Green Development Foundation released a photograph of a baiji lookalike, captured last month in a section of the Yangtze near Wuhu in the eastern province of Anhui.
“The foundation claimed that several researchers who have worked closely with the baiji or specialized in its study confirmed the image to be a surviving specimen of the species,” Luan Xiang said.
“We sighted a Baiji majestically swimming in the river. As evidence we also took photographs,” China Biodiversity Conservation & Green Development Foundation Enterpriser Photography Nature Fund director Qian Zou told the China Global Television Network.
“Specimens could still be out there”
Cautiously affirmed Institute of Hydrobiology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences professor Wang Kexiong, noting that a single photograph is not enough to establish the survival of an entire species, “Though the baiji is very likely to have gone extinct in the wild, the possibility remains that a few last surviving specimens could still be out there.”
Su Fei, director of the baiji program for the China Biodiversity Conservation & Green Development Foundation, told Luan Xiang that “for three years the foundation has been organizing observation trips to raise protection awareness about the Yangtze’s freshwater dolphins,” also including the highly endangered finless porpoise. Normally seldom seen, finless porpoises in November 2017 were reportedly seen 70 times in six days in the Jianli section of the Yangtze, according to Xinhua news agency staff editor Xiang Bo.
This, Xiang Bo noted, was “a number much higher than previous surveys of that section undertaken in 2006 and 2012.”
Slightly more than 1,000 finless porpoises remain in the Yangtze, according to the World Wildlife Fund. A captive population at the Tianezhou Oxbow Nature Reserve, begun with five finless porpoises in 1990, has increased to “nearly 40,” the World Wildlife Fund says.
“No other creature could jump like that!”
A blurred and distant video of a purported baiji sighting in a tributary near Tongling turned up in 2006, but experts eventually decided the animal was a finless porpoise.
Nearly ten years passed before Song Qi, described by media as an “amateur conservationist,” in October 2016 told the news web site Sixth Tone that he and others believed they had seen at least one baiji in approximately the same vicinity where one now appears to have been photographed.
“No other creature could jump out of the Yangtze like that,” Song Qi confirmed to Guardian newspapers Beijing correspondent Tom Phillips.
“All the eyewitnesses – which include fishermen – felt certain that it was a baiji,” Song Qi said.
Wrote Phillips, “Song told the Guardian that the unconfirmed sighting occurred during a seven-day search mission down the Yangtze that began in the city of Anqing on September 30, 2016. At just after 9.20 a.m. on October 4, 2016 he recalled spotting a ‘white dot’ emerge from the river. Soon after, a ‘white light’ appeared to puncture the surface of the water for a second time. Seconds later Song spotted what he believes was the baiji for the third and final time, swimming towards the river’s eastern bank. Song said local fisherman who had also seen the creature were ‘100% certain’ it was the baiji.”
“In May 2017, several observers were confirmed to have witnessed the elegant mammal,” reported Luan Xiang.
How photo was taken
But the photo was not obtained until April 2018, witness Li Xinyuan told Luan Xiang.
“For two days straight,” Li Xinyuan said, “our teammates witnessed the baiji, but it was gone before they could press the shutter. On the third day, the photographer Jiao Shaowen decided to use a camera lens, rather than binoculars, to observe the water’s surface, so he was able to take the shot the instant the baiji emerged.”
Li Xinyuan was among several scientists who sought unsuccessfully to bring the baiji back from the brink of extinction, beginning in the 1980s.
“He believes that if one was spotted, there could be a small school nearby,” wrote Luan Xiang.
“It is noticeable,” Li Xinyuan told Luan Xiang, “that the Yangtze water quality and ecosystem have kept improving, thanks to state-led protection efforts.”
Emphasized retired Nanjing Normal University Life Science Institute professor Hua Yuanyu, who also worked to try to recover the baiji in the 1980s, “Waterborne transportation along the Yangtze ought to be properly managed to reduce the noise that has gravely affected the life of these sonar-guided dolphins.”
Also, Hua Yuanyu said, “destructive fishing methods such as high-voltage electrofishing, floating gill netting, and muro-ami, a technique that uses encircling nets with pounding devices, should be strictly forbidden, and any violation should be punished to protect both the dolphins and their prey.
Explained Hua Yuanyu, “The baiji is a mammal who uses lungs to breathe. If shocked by electricity, the baiji may lose consciousness and drown.”
Mentioned in ancient texts, but apparently never as abundant as the also now rare finless porpoise, the baiji was probably already closer to extinction than anyone realized when 17-year-old American duck hunter Charles Hoy shot the first scientifically described specimen in 1914.
Baiji were at times thereafter hunted for food and oil, especially during the so-called Great Leap Forward under Mao tse Tung, when as many as 30 million Chinese people starved to death. Mostly, however, baiji appear to have been accidental victims of “rolling hook” fishing, fish netting, and boat traffic along the river, which has long been among China’s busiest thoroughfares.
Not more than 200 baiji were left by the time field studies started circa 1979.
Captive breeding attempts failed
Inept attempts to catch baiji for captive breeding, lack of knowledge about the needs of baiji once captured, institutional rivalries, and the perception of international conservation organizations that the baiji was a lost cause all contributed to the failure of last-ditch efforts to resuscitate the species.
Renowned marine mammalogist Stephen Leatherwood joined the effort to save the baiji toward the end of his life, but died from cancer in January 1997, at age 53.
The last known living baiji, part of a failed captive breeding scheme that never actually managed to bring male and female baiji together, died in 2002.
Finn biologist Samuel Turvey led a two-boat survey of the entire length of the Yangtse and major tributaries in 2005 that found not a trace of a living baiji and no credible reports of recent sightings. Turvey recounted the apparent loss of the baiji in a 2008 book, Witness to Extinction: How We Failed to Save the Yangtse River Dolphin.