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

Update 2006

The baiji is the first cetacean to become extinct in modern times, as well as the first large mammal driven to extinction primarily by human destruction of its natural habitat and resources.

On 13 December 2006, the baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) was declared “functionally extinct” after a search expedition, under the direction of the Wuhan Institute for Hydrobiology and the (now-defunct) Swiss-based Foundation, drew to a finish without observing any baiji. During the six-week expedition, scientists from six nations desperately searched the Yangtze in vain. It is possible that one or two animals might have been missed, but these would offer no hope for the long-term survival of the species. The 20 million year old river dolphin was one of the world's oldest extant species. (See Turvey et al. 2007, Biology Letters, 3, 537)

Update 2017

The last confirmed sighting of a baiji in the Yangtze River was in 2002. In 2007, a man from the city of Tongling on the Yangtze River filmed “a big white animal” in the river that was initially "confirmed" and later refuted to be a baiji. A 44-day survey of 3400 km of the Yangtze River in 2012 failed to locate any baiji (also see Update 2007 and Update 2013-2017 below). A baiji sighting reported in 2016 has been met with a similar level of skepticism. Both the 2007 and 2016 sightings were most likely finless porpoises, not baiji.

“Extreme claims for the possible survival of probably extinct species require robust proof, and while I would deeply love there to be strong evidence that the baiji is not extinct, this isn’t it.”

-- Dr. Samuel Turvey, 2016, in an email to The Guardian.

Update 2013-2017

A multi-agency report concludes that the Yangtze River finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis) is in critical danger of extinction. The 2012 survey of the Yangtze resulted in a population estimate of only 505 finless porpoises (down from over 1000 in 2006), and an average annual rate of decline of 13.7% during 2006-2012. Compared to historical estimates of the annual decline rate (6% during 1994-2008 and 1.5% before 1993), it is clear that the rate of decline of the Yangtze finless porpoise is accelerating. This is blamed on food shortages and human disturbances, such as increased shipping traffic, as well as “insufficient and ineffective” conservation methods. (Mei et al. 2014, Biological Conservation, 172, 117)

China's Ministry of Agriculture recently classified the Yangtze finless porpoise as a “National First Grade Key Protected Wild Animal,” the strictest classification available by law. Nonetheless, at its current rate of decline, the Yangtze finless porpoise will be extinct by 2025.

The finless porpoise is now in the position of the baiji 25 years ago.

So it goes.

Thank you for reading this document, and caring. There will be no further updates.

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...


In August and September of 1995, we spent five weeks in central China, traveling up and down the Yangtze River under the auspices of an American/Chinese Adventure Capital Fellowship from the Durfee Foundation (later renamed the Avery China Adventure Program, the program is currently discontinued). The foundation provides grants to alumni, students, faculty, and staff of a number of southern California colleges and universities (including Donald's alma mater Harvey Mudd College) to travel to China and undertake an adventure that is totally unrelated to the award recipient's career or field of study. The underlying idea is to promote interaction with the people of China, and to experience the Chinese culture.

The Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia and the third longest in the world, at roughly 6000 km. It's proper name in Chinese is Chang Jiang, which literally means “Long River”; “Yangtze” is actually just a local name for the particular stretch of the river that runs through Jiangsu Province. We began our adventure in Shanghai, where the vast Yangtze delta merges into the East China Sea. Most of our traveling was done by means of the river ferries that transport people and goods along the Yangtze.

These domesticated water buffalo are enjoying a bit of relief from the incredible heat and humidity of the Yangtze River valley in summer.

These domesticated water buffalo are enjoying a bit of relief from the incredible heat and humidity of the Yangtze River valley in summer.

The first half of our journey spanned the lower one-quarter of the Yangtze's length, from Shanghai at the river's mouth to Wanxian City at the upstream entrance to the spectacular Three Gorges. (In the late 1990s, Wanxian City was partially submerged due to completion of the Three Gorges Dam, and the remainder was absorbed into the mega-city of Chongqing). In the Three Gorges region, the river narrows and flows between high cliffs covered with forest and terraced rice paddies that stair-step to the tips of the peaks. From Wanxian, we then retraced our route back downstream to the shore of the China Sea. Along the way, we visited the major urban centers of Nanjing and Wuhan, as well as smaller cities such as Tongling and Yichang.

The main purpose of our trip to China was to learn about the Chinese freshwater dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) that lives in the Yangtze River. Historically, this animal lived in the 1800 km long section of the Yangtze over which we traveled, from the Three Gorges to the sea. In recent times, however, its range and population have dwindled, principally due to human use (and misuse) of the river. Called baiji in Chinese, it is the most endangered species of marine mammal in the world – less than 100 (probably less than 50) now survive (update – see the top of this page!). Consequently, we also wanted to learn about the conservation measures that have been initiated by the Chinese government in a desperate attempt to save this little-known creature from extinction.

Note: the probably extinct baiji or “white fin” dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer – image [a] below) should not be confused with the endangered Chinese white dolphin (Sousa chinensis chinensis – image [b] below), which is a subspecies of the Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphin. The Chinese white dolphin is primarily found in the Pearl River delta between Hong Kong and Macau. The adult Chinese white dolphin actually has pink (or mottled gray and pink) skin, caused by blood vessels that provide thermoregulation to prevent overheating during exertion. Nor should the baiji be confused with the Yangtze River finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis – image [c] below), the second species of large mammal that lives in the Yangtze River.

This document describes many of the highlights of our trip...