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September 10, 2007 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]


Poor Baiji, the white-fin Yangtze river dolphin. Latin name lipotes vexillifer, locally known as “goddess of the Yangtze” and “panda and water”, now known as Extinct. She was unknown one day and gone the next.

According to the local legends of China’s Yangtze river basin, the blind and effectively deaf baiji dolphins who inhabit the river are the reincarnation of a princess who, refusing to marry a man she did not love, was drowned by her kinsmen for bringing shame upon their house. As Douglas Adams and Mark Cawardine wrote in Last Chance to See, if they are all the same princess “she must have led a life of exquisite sinfulness… her reincarnations are constantly being mangled in ships’ propellers, snared in fishermen’s nets full of hooks, blinded, poisoned and deafened.”

The baiji lived in the Yangtze river for twenty million years, and was so evolutionarily distinct that she counted as an entire mammalian family, all by herself. Growing up to eight feet in length and paler than other dolphins, with a distinctive long snout, she was not officially discovered until a Yankee killed one and dragged it back to the Smithsonian in 1914; Chinese biologist Professor Zhou found another one in the fifties, but no-one really cared until some peasants found another baiji in 1984 and told the Tongling Municipal Government. In 1986 she was listed as endangered, with just 400 left in existence.

See No Pollution: the Yangtze river basin, 6,300 km long, is home to one tenth of the entire global human population. Owing to the poor state of China’s roads (at least until the last decade), the Yangtze has long been China’s main highway. It is a shitty, filthy brown mess, and so was not much good for Baiji’s eyes. Therefore, Baiji was blind. Whereas other dolphins have eyes on the sides of their heads for seeing fishies with, the baiji’s eyes evolved to sit on the top of her head; their only use was for telling where light came from, which let her known which way was up and which down.

Hear No Pollution: All dolphins locate via echolocation, bouncing sound off of their surroundings in order to find their way. While most dolphins are so good at echolocation that they can find a small ring on the sea bed, echolocation was even more important for the baiji as she could not see through her murky surroundings. However, because the Yangtze is crammed full of churning and spluttering boat engines all going about their business, the only sound the baiji could ever hear was a pure, sustained blast of white noise. Unable to see or hear, the helpless baiji floundered like a floundery helpless thing. Baiji expert Professor Zhou told Adams and Cawardine that when a dolphin hears a boat she will attempt to dive down and surface behind it. When every boat is followed by another, this tends to results in a meeting with nasty mister propeller and, subsequently, dead baiji.

Speak nevermore, because of pollution. Well, that and the propellers. Baiji were never successfully bred in captivity; the only captive baiji, Qi Qi, died in 2002, and no wild specimens have been seen since. In late 2006, Dr Samuel Turvey from the Zoological Society of London and August Pfluger from Switzerland’s led an expedition to find any remaining baiji and move them to Tian’ezhou reserve, a 21km lake kept safe to the dolphin. Despite thoroughly searching 1,669 kms of the river with hydrophones in an attempt to hear the baiji’s distinctive whistling communication, the expedition found only boats – 19,830 of them, one for every 800m of river. The Yangtze is so polluted that the UN has declared it a dead zone, with not enough oxygen to support fish life.

So this year, in the journal Biology Letters, the baiji was declared extinct. Half of all recorded dead baiji in the last two decades have been killed by the local fishermen’s lines, which are normally one kilometre in length and dotted with hundreds of large bare hooks. Despite the creation of reserves, and the sale of a myriad baiji merchandise (baiji beer, baiji phosphorous fertiliser, etcetera), all attempts to save her failed. She was the first large vertebrate species to become extinct in fifty years, and only the fourth entire mammalian family to become extinct in the last five centuries. She was also the first species of cetacean (porpoise, whale and dolphin) to have been driven to extinction by human activity alone.

Now, the Chinese government did attempt to save her by setting up reserves, but as her habitat was left to fester it was all pointless, and now she is gone for good. Fuck, people are shit.


About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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