After 25 Million Years, Man Renders Baiji Dolphin Extinct

Here are some interesting facts about the Baiji dolphin.

  • According to fossil records, the Baiji swam the Pacific ocean 25 million years ago, then migrated to China’s Yangtze River 20 million years ago
  • The Baiji is one of only four species of dolphins who live exclusively in fresh water
  • According to Chinese legend, the Baiji was the reincarnation of an ancient princess who was drowned by her father after refusing to marry a man who she did not love
  • The Baiji is now extinct

Even more troubling is that this is the first time a dolphin or whale has been wiped out due to the meddling of humans according to an international team of researchers which published its findings in the Journal of the Royal Society Biology Letters.

The Yangtze River dolphin or baiji (Lipotes vexillifer), an obligate freshwater odontocete known only from the middle-lower Yangtze River system and neighbouring Qiantang River in eastern China, has long been recognized as one of the world’s rarest and most threatened mammal species. The status of the baiji has not been investigated since the late 1990s, when the surviving population was estimated to be as low as 13 individuals. An intensive six-week multi-vessel visual and acoustic survey carried out in November–December 2006, covering the entire historical range of the baiji in the main Yangtze channel, failed to find any evidence that the species survives. We are forced to conclude that the baiji is now likely to be extinct, probably due to unsustainable by-catch in local fisheries. This represents the first global extinction of a large vertebrate for over 50 years, only the fourth disappearance of an entire mammal family since AD 1500, and the first cetacean species to be driven to extinction by human activity. Immediate and extreme measures may be necessary to prevent the extinction of other endangered cetaceans, including the sympatric Yangtze finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides asiaeorientalis). - Royal Society

The speed with which the species disappeared is even more troubling when taken with the fact that as recently as the 1950s, the Baiji numbered in the thousands.

During Mao Ze-dong’s “Great Leap Forward”, traditional veneration of the Baiji - nicknamed “Goddess of the Yangtze” - was denounced and the dolphin hunted for its flesh and skin. Industrial pollution, depleted food due to overfishing, loss of habitat, and the construction of the Three Gorges Dam put further pressure on the dolphin. Stocks of some of its prey species collapsed to one thousandth of pre-industrial levels. In the crowded Yangtze, many dolphins died after becoming entangled in fishing nets and being prevented from surfacing for air. Noise pollution also caused the animals, which navigate by sonar echo-location, to collide with vessels and get caught in propellers. - The Scotsman

Other species in the Yangtze River which are considered to be high risk are the Chinese alligator and the Chinese paddlefish, which have not been sighted in four years. The Baiji is only the fourth mammal family to have become extinct in the last 500 years, joining the following list:

Island Shrews Extinct: 1500 The West Indian “island shrews” or nesophontids are known only from sub-fossil remains. They were about the size of a rat and died out following the accidental introduction of black rats, with which they could not compete, from European ships. They were the most ancient land mammals of the West Indies and their extinction represented the loss of an entire mammalian order. Giant Lemurs Extinct: 1650 The giant lemurs of Madagascar weighed up to 180lb, more than a silverback gorilla. They died out as a result of hunting by humans. Tasmanian Tiger Extinct: 1936 The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, left, looked like a large striped dog, with a wolf’s head and heavy tail. It was actually a marsupial, related to the kangaroo, with a pouch to raise its young. European settlers feared it and killed it whenever they could. Thylacines never bred in captivity - the last known one dying in Hobart zoo on 7 September 1936. - The Independent

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  • Posted on Aug. 10, 2007. Listed in:

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