“After an extensive and ultimately fruitless search along China’s Yangtze River, it was confirmed by a group of scientists on 13 December 2006, that the baiji, sometimes known as the Yangtze River or Chinese River dolphin, was functionally extinct. The announcement marked the end of the species’ inexorable decline and ensured the baiji held the sad distinction of being the first aquatic mammal to become extinct since the Caribbean monk seal was wiped out through excessive hunting and dwindling fish stocks in the 1950s.
The baiji occupied an exceptionally limited habitat, living only in the waters of China’s longest river, the Yangtze. For many it was considered a sacred animal, earning it the title Goddess of the Yangtze. But that respect did not extend to its natural habitat, and as Chinese industrialisation gathered pace, the Yangtze became less and less hospitable for the creatures that lived in it.
Despite surviving for upwards of 20 million years, the prospects for the baiji had looked bleak for much of the 20th century. Due to its environmental constraints the population had never been particularly large, and as human activity manipulated its surroundings, it proved particularly susceptible to its rapidly changing environment.
Chronic pollution and increased traffic in the Yangtze River decimated the dolphin population in the latter half of the 20th century, reducing the population from around six thousand in 1950, to just a couple of hundred by the mid-1980s. By 1997 the population was hovering around fifty, and the outlook for the baiji looked bleak.
When the Chinese authorities finally recognised the baiji’s dire situation, a number of measures were taken to halt its decline. Strict laws were passed to prevent hunting and poaching, and a sanctuary was established in Wuhan where it was hoped a breeding programme would revive the baiji’s numbers.
The results, however, were disappointing, and as the 1990s drew to a close, so did the baiji’s fragile hold on existence. A scientific expedition to the region in 1998 counted just seven dolphins. Qi Qi, the last known specimen in captivity, died in 2002, and the last confirmed sighting of a baiji in the wild came in 2004.
Since the announcement, there have been several unconfirmed sightings, but even if these proved to be living Yangtze dolphins, the population is unlikely to be large enough to be sustainable. One or two specimens may have escaped the scientists’ count, but the baiji has sadly proved to be a creature that was unable to adapt to the polluting excesses of mankind.”