Monday, November 14, 2005

ENV: Baiji Lost?

Last gasp for Yangtze dolphins doomed by industrial revolution
By Jane Macartney in Tian’ezhou, The Times, October 26, 2005

THE Yangtze River dolphin enjoys a rare and unwanted distinction. The grey-white, long-beaked animal looks likely to become the world’s first cetacean — the family of whales, dolphins and porpoises — to be made extinct by man.

In the 1950s as many as 6,000 baiji, as the dolphins are known in Chinese, still swam in the Yangtze. Today fewer than 50 may survive. None has been seen since July last year when a pair were spotted in Honghu Lake, part of a huge water system that winds out across the Yangtze plain.

In a dusty specimen room at the Hydrobiology Institute in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the stuffed, enamelled body of the only Yangtze River dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) to have lived in captivity lies forlornly among empty glass jars and cases displaying the bodies of infant dolphins and porpoises floating in formaldehyde.

Qiqi spent 22 lonely years swimming around a 300sq m (3,230 sq ft) pool at the institute after he was found badly bruised, the victim of illegal fishing, in a lake off the Yangtze in 1980. Scientists tried many times to catch a mate or companion for him. Their failure reflects the march of modernisation along the Yangtze that has transformed the dolphin’s muddy river home into its graveyard.

With little need to see in the turbid Yangtze waters, the dolphin — for centuries called the Goddess of the Yangtze and the subject of myths and legend — evolved a highly effective sonar above its beak. But the roar of marine traffic along one of China’s premier waterways effectively blinded it.

Fishermen trapped the baiji in their nets, ships and tourist boats sucked them into their propellers, pollution poisoned their river home and the huge Three Gorges Dam blocked their passage and altered their environment — perhaps permanently. “I am a little pessimistic,” Hao Yujiang, a researcher at the Institute, said. “It is not possible to improve the environment of the river in the foreseeable future.”

Having virtually abandoned hope of saving the baiji, scientists and environmentalists are now focusing on saving its cousin, the finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides). About 2,700 porpoises lived along the Yangtze in 1991. Now they are believed to number fewer than 1,000, although researchers lack the funds to carry out a proper census.

Five of the porpoises, which are grey-brown and snub-nosed, swim in tanks at the Wuhan Institute. One is a new arrival, the first to be born in captivity. The three-month-old male clings to his mother as she arches back and forth in her tank. His keepers purr like proud parents over his watery feats. The porpoises receive fresh carp several times a day and they eagerly pop their heads above the surface for a pat. The baby, still unnamed, is likely to spend his life in the aquarium.

After years of campaigning, the Institute, working with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), has persuaded local government departments to designate the nearby Tian’ezhou oxbow lake as a nature reserve. Already 23 porpoises have been moved to the crescent-shaped lake. The WWF hopes that the porpoises will have a chance to thrive in its cleaner, less populated waters.

But the porpoises are at a disadvantage in a country that is destroying its environment almost faster than it is developing its economy. “The Yangtze is a very busy waterway and the noise of the ships is badly disturbs their sonar system so they hit ships and jump against dykes,” Mr Hao said.

The construction of the huge Three Gorges Dam has dealt a serious blow, lowering the water level in many lakes fed by the Yangtze. Wei Zhou, secretary of the Wuhan Baiji Conservation Foundation, said that the porpoises’ habitat was getting smaller. He could not cite specific data, but said: “I feel more individuals have died.”

Drastic measures are needed, and soon, argue the WWF and researchers. Mr Hao said: “We need to protect the oxbow as a whole. Not just one species, but a whole ecosystem.”

The main obstacle is man —residents and government. About 500 families live around the oxbow and make a living from its waters. The aim now is to move them out, or at least out of the water, away from fishing to farming. But opposition can be fierce. “What is more important, the survival of man or animals?” one farmer said, with a dismissive gesture towards the Yangtze.

The last Pyrenean ibex (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica) died out on January 6, 2000, in Ordesa National Park in Spain

Miss Waldron’s red colobus monkey (Procolobus badius waldroni) was discovered in West Africa in 1933 by Willoughby P. Lowe, a British collector, who named it after his female travelling companion. It was declared extinct in 2000 — wiped out by hunters

The night parrot (Geopsittacus occidentalis), a small broad-tailed bird native to Australia, was last sighted in 1990 [this parrot may have been recently rediscovered! -- tg]

The southern day frog, also known as the Mount Glorious torrent frog, (Taudactylus diurnus) from the Queensland rainforest, was last seen in 1995

The po’o-uli (Melamprosops phaeosoma) belongs to one of the world’s most threatened bird families, the Hawaiian honeycreepers. Discovered in 1973, in Maui’s Ko`olau Forest Reserve, the last known example died in 2004

The Queen of Sheba’s, or bilkis gazelle (Gazella bilkis), lived on the plains and hills around the city of Ta’izz in Yemen. It was declared extinct in 1992


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