In Search of the Baiji: An Adventure in China
by D. W. Hoard and S. Wachter
Public Awareness of the Baiji
In addition to learning about the baiji from the scientists who study them, we were interested in learning what level of awareness the average person in China has about the plight of the baiji. The limited information from Chinese sources that was available in the United States at the time stated that the baiji is the “most protected” animal in China and that large public awareness programs had been initiated. Thus, we expected that many Chinese people living in the Yangtze River region would have at least heard of the baiji.
To aid this facet of our project, we took along a large color copy of one of the photographs of the baiji Qi Qi from the book that Dr. Brownell had given us. This particular picture shows the baiji's entire body out of water during one of his periodic health check-ups. We carried this photo with us practically everywhere we went in China so we could ask people we encountered if they knew about this animal. Taking along the photo to make our intent clear turned out to be an excellent plan because people often thought we were saying “Beijing” when we said “baiji.” We're not sure if that reflects the lack of public awareness regarding the baiji, or just our poor pronunciation of Chinese words!
We were amazed and disappointed to find that almost no one we met outside of the biology departments of the universities (except for a high school teacher we met on a river ferry in Wuhan) had ever heard of the baiji. Several people even expressed disbelief in our assertion that this animal actually lived in the Yangtze River! For comparison, we also asked the people we met if they knew about the giant panda; unsurprisingly, literally everyone we spoke to had heard of the more cuddly, yet decidedly less endangered, panda. The only general exception to the apparent public ignorance of the river dolphin was in Tongling, where it seemed like everyone knew about the baiji! We could attribute this to better public awareness campaigns or to the proximity of the semi-natural reserve site, but we suspect it's actually because of the locally-brewed “baiji beer.”
Dr. Zhou did tell us that they had distributed information about the baiji to the fishermen around Nanjing. They hope to help prevent accidental kills by educating the fishermen about the nature and habits of the baiji.
In Wuhan, Dr. Zhang's group has enlisted the aid of the fishermen by distributing log books in which they can record the date and location of baiji sightings to aid the researchers in population estimates. Dr. Zhang thinks that this may not be an entirely successful program because the baiji has been traditionally regarded as a sacred animal – as with the techniques of their trade, the fishermen have handed down the legend that it is unlucky to touch or even see a baiji. (There may be a factual basis for this superstition, since the baiji eat the same fish that the fisherman try to catch. So, an area of the river frequented by baiji might have a depleted fish population – certainly an “unlucky” situation for a fisherman!) Thus, Dr. Zhang thinks that perhaps many baiji sightings go unrecorded because the fishermen fear that reporting the sighting would make them “officially” susceptible to the associated bad luck.
Our trusty baiji photo turned out to be extremely useful in at least one instance. When we were looking for Dr. Zhou's rather well-hidden lab somewhere near the Nanjing Normal University sports field, we saw a young man of about our age coming out of a small building and locking the door behind him. He had the overworked and sleep-deprived look that we immediately identified as the unmistakable aura of a fellow graduate student. We thought we should try asking him for additional directions, so we pulled out the baiji photo and walked up to him. As soon as he saw the photo, before we could even say anything, he started laughing and gestured for us to follow him. Although we found this a little disconcerting, we followed and he led us back into the building from whence he had emerged.
As soon as we stepped through the door, he pointed toward the ceiling. We looked up, and to our vast surprise, saw the mummified remains of a baiji gathering dust on top of a shelf! It turns out that we had chanced upon a biology graduate student who – even though he studies poultry and not baiji – works in Dr. Zhou's lab. He was just leaving for lunch and no one else was in the lab, so if we'd arrived only a few minutes later, or if we hadn't caught his attention with the baiji photo, we might never have found Dr. Zhou's lab!