WASHINGTON - An expedition on the Yangtze River has ended with no sightings of baiji dolphins and experts now fear the worst for the species. The expedition also counted Yangtze finless porpoises and scientists warn that the situation is dire for this species as well but remain hopeful that it can survive in the wild.
Scientists left the city of Wuhan on November 6 and spent 39 days on two ships, sailing between Yichang and Shanghai, a distance of more than 1,000 miles. No baiji were seen, and the finless porpoise population was estimated at just 1,200 to 1,400 -- roughly half of the1991 population.
"The fact that the expedition didn't see any baiji dolphins during this expedition does not necessarily mean that the species is extinct or even 'effectively extinct', because it covered a considerable distance in a relatively short period of time," said Wang Limin, director of WWF-China's Wuhan office. "However, we are extremely concerned. The Yangtze is highly degraded, and we spotted dramatically fewer finless porpoises than we have in the past."
The main threats to the baiji and finless porpoise come from illegal fishing and overfishing, shipping traffic, water deterioration and construction of extensive hydropower and flood control projects. WWF scientists say that the keys to the survival of both species lie in conserving oxbow lakes in the Yangtze, creating a network of nature reserves along the river, and changing the management of the river to a more holistic ecosystem-based management system that would maximize benefits for both people and nature.
"The disappearance of the baiji is a warning of things to come, but like the burning of Ohio's dismally polluted Cuyahoga River in 1969 that helped spur the Clean Water Act, maybe this will be the catalyst that sparks a major ecological restoration of the Yangtze River," said Karen Baragona, director of WWF-US's Yangtze River Basin Program. "The Chinese government sees that degradation of its rivers impedes economic growth. Working together, we can bring back the vitality of the Yangtze and ensure a future for the finless porpoise."