Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Hic jacet Lipotes vexillifer: Here lies the baiji

The news came bit by bit, first in a press briefing on the failure of the Yangtze Freshwater Dolphin Expedition 2006:
The baiji, a rare, nearly blind white dolphin that survived for 20 million years, is effectively extinct, an international expedition declared after ending a fruitless six-week search of its Yangtze River habitat. The baiji would be the first large aquatic mammal driven to extinction since hunting and overfishing killed off the Caribbean monk seal in the 1950s. For the baiji, the culprit was a degraded habitat -- busy ship traffic, which confounds the sonar the dolphin uses to find food, and overfishing and pollution in the Yangtze waters of eastern China . . . .
And then came 20 million years and a farewell, a brief tribute from New York Times science writer Andrew C. Revkin:
Swimming baijiThe first species to be erased from this planet's great and ancient Order of Cetaceans in modern times is not one of the charismatic sea mammals that have long been the focus of conservation campaigns, like the sperm whale or bottlenose dolphin.

It appears to be the baiji, a white, nearly blind denizen of the Yangtze River in China.
Finally, by way of an e-mail message from Philip Regal to fellow members of the University of Minnesota Conservation Biology Program, I got word of this dispatch by Robert L. Pitman of the NOAA Fisheries Ecosysem Studies Program:
Robert L. Pitman has spent 30 years studying the world’s whales, dolphins and other aquatic mammals. He returned to San Deigo, Calif., last week after a fruitless six-week expedition in which teams of five observers on two vessels scoured the Yangtze River from the Three Gorges Dam to Shanghai, seeking the last members of the rarest cetacean species of all, a white, nearly blind dolphin called the baiji, Lipotes vexillifer. . . .

Yangtze RiverLocally, the Yangtze River is in serious trouble; the canary in the coal mine is dead. In addition to baiji, the Yangtze paddlefish is (was) probably the largest freshwater fish in the world (at least 21 feet), and it hasn’t been seen since 2003; the huge Yangtze sturgeon breeds only in tanks now because it has no natural habitat (a very large dam stands between it and its breeding grounds). The whole river ecosystem is going down the tubes in the name of rampant economic development. There is a huge environmental debt accruing on the Yangtze, and baiji was perhaps just the first installment.

Globally, scientists have been warning for some time of an impending anthropogenic mass extinction worldwide. Previous bouts of human-caused extinctions were due mainly to directed take: humans hunting for food. What we are seeing now is probably the first large animal that has ever gone extinct merely as an indirect consequence of human activity: a victim of market forces and our collective lifestyle. Nobody eats baiji and no tourists pay to see it — there were no reasons to take it deliberately, but there was no economic reason to save it, either. It is gone because too many people got too efficient at catching fish in the river and it was incidental bycatch. And it is perhaps a view of the future for much of the rest of the world and an indication that the predicted mass extinction is arriving on schedule. . . .

From now on we will have to choose which animals will be allowed to live on the planet with us, and baiji got cut in the first round. It is a sad day. I know it is their country, but the planet belongs to all of us. We came to say goodbye to baiji, but after its being in the river for 20 million years, we apparently missed it by two years.

Sorry if I got a little emotional here, but the disappearance of an entire family of mammals is an inestimable loss for China and for the world. I think this is a big deal and possibly a turning point for the history of our planet. We are bulldozing the Garden of Eden, and the first large animal has fallen.
The fall of the baiji signals, more urgently than ever, the danger that looms over all freshwater ecosystems on earth. Baiji.Org lists the remaining freshwater cetacean species as flagship species for continuing ecological vigilance:

SusuThe susu, Platanista gangetica spp., lives in the Indus and Ganges river systems. There are two subspecies: the susu and the bhulan or Indus susu.

Irrawaddy dolphinThe irrawaddy dolphin, Orcaella brevirostris, lives in the Mekong river system in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

BotoThe boto, Inia geoffrensis, also known as the Inia or Amazon river dolphin, is endemic to the Amazon and Orinoco river systems in South America.

TucuxiLike the boto, the tucuxi, Sotalia fluviatilis fluviatilis, also inhabits the Amazon and Orinoco river systems.

Yangtze finless porpoiseThe Yangtze finless porpoise, Neophocaena phocaenoides asiaeorientalis, like the baiji before it, lives exclusively in China's Yangtze River.

As for the baiji itself, all that remains are still images from Arkive.Org and other repositories. Alas, Eden.

Editor's note: This item is being posted simultaneously on Jurisdynamics and BioLaw.


Blogger Paul Hirsch said...

One of my fondest memories from San Francisco of the 1960's was visiting the Steinhart Aquarium in Golden Gate Park and watching the Botos, or as I knew them then, the blind Amazon River dolphins. They would swim at high speed toward the glass, then swerve away at the last moment. I figured they were simply entertaining themselves, but they may have had different thoughts.

12/26/2006 8:23 PM  
Blogger Jim Chen said...


As Daredevil can tell you, who needs sight when you have perfect echolocation?


12/26/2006 10:43 PM  

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