In Search of the Baiji: An Adventure in China
by D. W. Hoard and S. Wachter
In Nanjing, we spoke with Dr. Zhou Kaiya, a Professor of Zoology in the Department of Biology at Nanjing Normal University. He is perhaps the most experienced of the scientists who study the river dolphin, and certainly one of the pioneers in this specialized area of biology.
Although they had been recorded in Chinese texts dating back 2000 years, the baiji were first “discovered” early in the 20th century by the son of an American missionary, who captured one and sent the body back to the United States for classification. Because this specimen was taken in or near Dongting Lake, it was believed that the baiji lived only in the lake. Dongting Lake is actually a large complex of interconnected lakes and waterways feeding into the Yangtze River about halfway between Wuhan and Yichang (the latter is a small city that straddles the downstream entrance to the Three Gorges). In the 1950s, Dr. Zhou discovered that the baiji also lived in the Yangtze River itself. Now, Dr. Zhou believes that the baiji may have never lived in Dongting Lake on a permanent basis – as he told us, it is sometimes “difficult to tell where the river ends and the lake begins,” especially when the water level is high due to seasonal flooding.
Currently, despite the baiji's status as very endangered and a “most protected” animal in China, Dr. Zhou's research seems to have only a low priority at the University. We originally looked for him in the recently built and easily located Biology Department building on the Nanjing Normal University campus. There was no obvious sign of him or anything having to do with the river dolphins. We eventually (and serendipitously) received directions to his office/laboratory, which turned out to be located in a tiny, run-down building tucked away in an unused and overgrown corner of the sports field at the very edge of the campus.
Dr. Zhou himself is a very polite, soft-spoken man. He was very willing to talk to us about the baiji; however, we got the impression that he has realized that as the number and hope of saving the baiji have both dwindled, so has the support for continuing research on them. Dr. Zhou now appears to be shifting a large part of his attention to studying the Yangtze River finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis), which is the second of the two species of marine mammal that inhabits the Yangtze. It is known locally as jiangzhu or “river pig”, which is a comment on both its snub-nosed appearance and its eating habits.
The finless porpoise is not in such imminent danger as the baiji (Dr. Zhou estimates the population of the former at around 3000), thereby offering a more promising prospect for long-term research [update – the finless porpoise is now categorized as “critically endangered” with a population of as little as 1000; see this WWF overview and the update here]. Dr. Zhou expects them to fare better than the baiji, or at least to decline more slowly, because the porpoises also live in many tributary rivers of the Yangtze plus the coastal waters off China. One of his recent research projects (which he seemed quite excited about) involved comparing specimens of finless porpoise from the Yangtze River, the Yellow Sea, and the East China Sea. Dr. Zhou believes that the finless porpoises in these three locations are different enough to justify categorizing them as three distinct subspecies.