By Zhan Yan, China Features
BEIJING, Jan. 21 (Xinhua) -- An international expedition that recently declared the Yangtze River dolphin, or 'baiji' (literally translated as 'white fin') "functionally extinct" has aroused public attention to the environmental degradation of China's longest
Over a six-week period between November and December
2006, and equipped with high performance optical instruments and underwater
microphones, the team of scientists cruised on two research vessels over 3,500
kilometers from Yichang near the Three Gorges Dam to Shanghai in the Yangtze
Delta, and back.
"The moment that experts disembarked from the ships,
was the moment that humankind bid farewell to the 20-million-year-old baiji,"
said Wang Kexiong, an expert working with the Institute of Hydrobiology (IHB),
based in Wuhan, "the baiji can easily be spotted as they breathe on the surface
and splash water almost every 30 seconds. It's a traditional and effective way
to locate a baiji."
Dubbed 'Goddess of the Yangtze', the baiji was held
in high regard by the ancient peoples of the Yangtze, who believed that the
white 'fish', the same size of a human being, could help safeguard sailing.
In the early 1980s, the Yangtze reportedly had around
400 baiji swimming its waters. A 1997 survey yielded 13 confirmed sightings. The
last confirmed sighting of a baiji was in September 2004.
As the expedition returned to land having failed to
sight a single baiji, August Pfluger, head of the Baiji.org Foundation and
co-organizer of the expedition, pronounced the species "functionally extinct" as
there are likely to be fewer alive than are needed to stop the species dying
Nevertheless, Chinese experts say they will continue
to search for the mammal in the Yangtze's waterways. International standards
state that, in order for a species to be declared extinct, no sighting of it has
to be reported for between 20 to 50 years.
Most of the scientific world's knowledge of the
species comes from 'QiQi', a male baiji that was rescued by the IHB in 1980 and
died in 2002. Wang Kexiong who, along with his colleagues, had been taking care
of QiQi, conceded that with his death in 2002, many people probably lost their
last chance to cast eyes on the quickly vanishing species.
"The Baiji is very friendly to humankind -- even
though he had sharp teeth, QiQi would never attack people standing nearby. If he
was unhappy with us, he would simply tap us with his tail -- at 2.5 meters long
and weighing in at 200kg, QiQi could have given us a much more powerful whack if
he had wanted to," said Wang.
Wang added that, "The baiji has feelings and
thoughts, just like other mammals -- we could sense QiQi was lonely at times but
he was relatively happy when people were in his company. It's just a pity we
failed to find him a mate -- the baiji usually lives in a nuclear family."
Wang Kexiong expressed his concerns for the future of
the Yangtze's entire ecological system stating that, "Cetaceans (whales,
dolphins and porpoise) live at the top of the food chain -- if they are
threatened by extinction, it means that their food sources are also dwindling
and biodiversity in the Yangtze River is degenerating."