In Search of the Baiji: An Adventure in China
by D. W. Hoard and S. Wachter

Wuhan and Qi Qi the Baiji

Chapters 1-10 of this document were written in 1995. We were much younger, there were still baiji swimming in the Yangtze River, and China was a different world. A lot has changed for all of us since then...

We were quite eager to visit Wuhan for several reasons. First and foremost, the world's only captive specimen of the baiji, “Qi Qi,” is housed in Wuhan. Before leaving for China, we had visited Dr. Robert Brownell at the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center in San Diego. He is involved with the international aspect of the river dolphin conservation project. He kindly gave us a small book, prepared for an international river dolphin conference held in Japan, which described the planned (at the time of its publication) construction of a modern aquarium/research facility to house the baiji in Wuhan. The aquarium, which was completed in 1992, was built with the support of the World-Wide Fund for Nature (formerly the World Wildlife Fund and, since 2001, apparently known as just “the WWF”) and the Enoshima Aquarium (Japan). Second, then, we wanted to view this new facility.

The baiji aquarium of the Institute of Hydrobiology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Prior to leaving the United States, we communicated (via fax) with Dr. Zhang Xianfeng, who bears the rather impressive title of Associate Professor and Vice Director of the Department of River Dolphin Research of the Institute of Hydrobiology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to arrange for permission to visit the new baiji aquarium.

Donald and Zhang Xianfeng in front of a sculpture of river dolphins at the Institute of Hydrobiology.

Upon arriving at the aquarium, we were a little surprised and disappointed to find this new, modern research facility to be in a similar state of anonymity and neglect as was Zhou Kaiya's laboratory in Nanjing. We don't mean neglect in the sense that the staff of the aquarium was negligent in maintaining it, for there was no evidence that was the case. However, we got the same feeling that the aquarium was being largely ignored by everyone else who was not directly involved with it – not at all what we expected to find at one of the primary research centers dedicated to saving China's most endangered mammal.

We were also a little disconcerted to find that the main aquarium tank – a very large, clover-leaf-shaped pool complete with underwater viewing ports – was completely empty. Dr. Zhang later told us that they had originally tried to house Qi Qi in the large pool, but he became disoriented and refused to eat, so was returned to the smaller circular pool in which he had lived most of his life. They eventually hope to acquire some finless porpoises for the main tank, but for the moment (and indeed since the completion of the aquarium in 1992) it is empty and unused; however, see Update 1999 and Update 2005.

For some reason, Dr. Zhang did not want us to take any photographs of Qi Qi, nor of the inside of the aquarium. While we have no definite explanation for this, we can relate the following anecdote which may provide some insight: when we first viewed Qi Qi's pool during our unannounced initial visit to the aquarium, Dr. Zhang apologized for the murkiness of the water, which was rather green and cloudy, although not nearly as dirty as the water in the baiji's natural habitat. We knew that they had problems keeping the baiji's old pool clean, but the new facility included modern filtering machinery, so we expected that Qi Qi's new pool would be pristine and clear. Dr. Zhang told us that due to a power outage, they were not able to run the filtering machinery that day; however, to our admittedly inexpert eyes, it looked as though the water hadn't been filtered in quite some time.

When we returned the next day to see Qi Qi being fed, the power was back on and the filters were running. While we do not want to imply that Dr. Zhang was purposefully misleading us, we suspect that (1) his reluctance to having photographs taken was related to the condition of the water and the fact that the main pool of the aquarium was not being used, and (2) that the “power outage” may have been the result of a lack of funding to pay for running the machinery. In any case, we didn't want to badger Dr. Zhang since he seemed very nice and we were grateful that he was so willing to talk to us and let us observe Qi Qi. However, we felt compelled to at least ask if we couldn't take just one photograph since we had come from so far away. Dr. Zhang agreed that we could have “special permission” to take one photograph of Qi Qi.

Qi Qi the baiji. Unfortunately, we could not use a flash for fear of upsetting the animal, and he was moving quite rapidly, so the photo is a little blurry; even so, it represents one of our most prized memories of China.

Much of our trepidation was dissolved upon actually seeing the baiji itself. Qi Qi appears to be healthy and is certainly active – constantly in motion swimming around his pool. Often, he would roll over on his back and swim belly-up. Several times, he splashed water out of the pool with his flukes. Dr. Zhang says that they believe this to be a behavior related to the mating urge, since he does it primarily during the spring and summer mating season for the wild baiji. As Dr. Zhang says, they would like to find a “girlfriend” for Qi Qi.

We also noticed that the baiji would often swivel his head from side to side while swimming, as if looking in different directions. This rather surprised us since dolphins and whales typically have fused necks, which improves their swimming ability but requires them to swivel their entire bodies in order to turn their heads. Among the whales, only the beluga whales have flexible necks. Dr. Zhang later showed us a preserved baiji skeleton and pointed out the seven separate bones that make up the animal's neck.

Like Dr. Zhou, Dr. Zhang is also expanding the focus of his research to include the finless porpoises. Dr. Zhang believes that they are faring better than the baiji in part because they eat the smaller, more abundant fish (plus shrimp, vegetation, and apparently some of the large supply of garbage tossed into the river by the Chinese). The baiji, on the other hand, are in the poor position of eating only the larger fish and, consequently, must compete with human fishermen for their food. Many finless porpoises are seen in the Yangtze River during the winter, but few in the summer. Dr. Zhang thinks they might be migratory, like their distant cousins the grey whales, but no one really knows where their migration takes them. Some possibilities are either up tributary rivers or into the coastal waters.

A few interesting facts about Qi Qi (told to us by Dr. Zhang)

  • Length = 2.10 meters
  • Age = about 18 years in 1995 (in captivity since 1980). Baiji may live to be 30 or more, but no one is really sure of their maximum life span – see Update 2003.
  • Average dive = 20 seconds; longest dive = over 2 minutes. These times are significantly shorter than those typical of the familiar saltwater bottlenose dolphin.
  • Qi Qi is fed three times a day (at 7 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m.), about 3 kg of fresh fish per feeding. The morning and evening fish are laced with vitamins and any medicine (often traditional Chinese herbal medicines) that the baiji might need.
  • It is not known how acute is the baiji's eyesight because it is difficult to differentiate between what they see and what they perceive via echolocation. It was our impression that Qi Qi was aware of his surroundings in a way that suggested he was utilizing visual information. For example, he seemed to become especially excited when the trainer walked around the edge of the tank carrying Qi Qi's lunch in a bucket. The fact that he recognized the man with the bucket of fish amongst the four or five other people around the pool suggests that he might have been able to discern the bucket's bright orange color (which he couldn't have done with sonar); however, he might also just have known that it was about time for lunch in the daily routine, so was expecting the man with the fish to arrive.

A few days later, as we were leaving Wuhan on a river ferry to travel through the Three Gorges region, we were fortunate enough to spot a group of about five finless porpoises swimming downstream past our ship. We were out on the deck of the ship at the time and the Chinese passengers were either completely nonplussed by the appearance of the porpoises, which were humping along through the water, looking like large, black sausages, or they didn't even notice them. (Or perhaps they were just too distracted by the sudden and excited histrionics of the two crazy foreigners dashing back along the length of the ship to keep the porpoises in sight.) Unfortunately, despite many hours spent on the decks of various ships scanning the vast and murky Yangtze River waters, we never saw a baiji in the wild.

Our typical poses during long ferry rides on the Yangtze River, hanging out on the upper bow deck, futilely hoping to catch a glimpse of a baiji in its native habitat (and, not coincidentally, spending as much time as possible in the best place on the ship to catch a cool breeze to relieve the otherwise constant and oppressive heat and humidity of the Yangtze River valley in summer)

The hydrofoil boat that we took back downstream through the Three Gorges, from Wanxian to Yichang. It took us three days and nights to sail upstream on the ferry, and six hours to return on the hydrofoil. The hydrofoil was apparently of Russian origin, judging by the Cyrillic writing on all signs and placards inside it (having to decipher the emergency evacuation instructions out of Cyrillic might have bothered us if we hadn't known that the alternative would just have been deciphering them out of Chinese).

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