In Search of the Baiji: An Adventure in China
by D. W. Hoard and S. Wachter
Unfortunately, our main conclusion is a sad one: it seems inevitable that the baiji will become extinct soon (see Update 2006). Although a conservation program has been started in China, it looks like a case of “too little, too late.” The facilities for initiating a captive breeding population of river dolphins are now in place in China, but they stand empty because no baiji can be found to fill them. The best estimates place the number of baiji remaining in the wild at substantially less than 100 – it may be the case that there are already too few baiji to even sustain a viable breeding population, captive or otherwise.
The baiji and their potential saviors face considerable obstacles. Our experiences while traveling up and down the Yangtze River suggest that the factor which has most influenced the decline of the baiji is the level of pollution caused by humans in the Yangtze River.
The Yangtze River, like the baiji that live in it, appears to have been another victim of China's extremely rapid economic and industrial growth during recent years. In many places, the banks of the river are lined with factories spewing black smoke into the air, and toxic waste and raw sewage into the river. In addition, the river is extremely crowded with boat traffic. We can't recall ever being out of sight of at least one other boat, and often the river was absolutely packed with them – many of them leaking oil and fuel from outdated engines. The passengers and crew on the boats think nothing of throwing all of their garbage right over the side and into the river. It is hard to believe that any organism, much less a creature as large and complex as the baiji, could survive in the Yangtze River.
During the first decade of the 21st century, China will complete construction of the world's largest dam, spanning the Yangtze River near the downstream entrance to the Three Gorges. The region upstream (including most of the Three Gorges) will be completely submerged under the world's largest man-made lake. One to two million inhabitants of the region will have to be resettled elsewhere, and many cities, temples, and monuments that have existed for centuries will be submerged and destroyed. In addition, the dam will disrupt the downstream flow of the Yangtze River in a manner that is likely to destroy the counter-current eddies in which the baiji feed, thereby eliminating any chance for their survival.
After seeing the grace and beauty of Qi Qi, perhaps the last baiji who will ever be closely observed by humanity, we can understand the feeling of melancholy and sadness that we sensed in all of the people trying frantically to save this rare species. We can only hope that if the baiji must perish, then the lessons learned from their demise will help save the finless porpoises of the Yangtze River when, inevitably it seems, they face imminent extinction as well.