It May Be Too Late For China to Save The Yangtze Goddess
Scientists Track the Dolphins But Might Have to Settle For Finding Them Extinct
By SHAI OSTER
December 6, 2006; Wall Street Journal, Page A1
HUBEI PROVINCE, China -- The Swiss heir to a trucking fortune and a team of scientists want to save the Yangtze River's white dolphins. But nobody is sure there are any left.
Last month, August Pfluger led a team of Chinese, Japanese, Swiss and American scientists in search of the baiji, a shy, nearly blind freshwater mammal known for centuries in Chinese legend as the Goddess of the Yangtze.
In the early 1990s, scientists estimated that there were about 200 baiji left, dodging the freighters and fishing boats clogging the river. By 1997, at the time of the last reliable sighting, scientists estimated that, at most, only about 17 of the 6-foot-long dolphins remained.
If this dolphin is now deemed to be extinct, scientists say it would be one of the few large aquatic mammals to be wiped out in 300 years. In the 1950s, the Caribbean monk seal was hunted to extinction. Other species have been pushed to the brink but have crawled back. By most reckonings, China's baiji has been pushed too far.
"It's a big thing to have a large mammal go extinct on our watch," said Bob Pitman, an ecologist from the U.S., looking for the dolphin through binoculars.
The baiji highlights the costs of China's untrammeled economic growth, which has polluted its skies and fouled its waters. The baiji, known for its chopsticks-like snout and uncanny sonar ability to navigate the muddy Yangtze, appears to have fallen victim to Chinese government inaction and insufficient international attention.
"Nobody cares about that damn animal -- maybe we are crazy," said the 42-year-old Mr. Pfluger as he unfurled a banner bearing the name of his foundation, Swiss-based baiji.org1, across the rust-streaked boat.
To pull off the expedition, Mr. Pfluger brought together a group of scientists from the East and the West, including Mr. Pitman, a marine ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and Wang Ding, China's leading champion of the baiji.
Since the late 1970s, China has recorded unprecedented growth of about 10% a year. But the side effects have deeply scarred China's landscape. One-third of the country suffers from severe acid rain. More than 300 million people lack access to clean drinking water, and more than half of the country's waterways are badly polluted. China claims some 47 critically endangered animal species on the Red List of threatened species, kept by the World Conservation Union, a voluntary organization of concerned scientists. Other endangered species are the Chinese alligator and the Yangtze River sturgeon.
In October, the United Nations Environment Program declared the Yangtze and Pearl River estuaries dead zones. The water doesn't have enough oxygen in it to support fish.
"The baiji is a beautiful mammal, on top of the food chain, close to human beings. If the Yangtze can't support baiji, then it can't support human beings," said Mr. Wang, as the boat sailed past belching factories, some spewing waste.
It wasn't always so. A few thousand years ago, the Yangtze was the Amazon of the East, rich in wildlife like alligators, elephants, giant sturgeons and an unusually large salamander. Scientists believe the baiji first moved into the area some 20 million years ago, making it one of the oldest species of dolphin. It developed in near total isolation from any other species of dolphin or whale. In the silty waters, its eyes atrophied, and it became nearly blind.
The baiji relies on a highly developed sense of sound to locate food and swim around obstacles, rather like bats bouncing sound waves off distant objects to judge their location. The baiji's long lower jaw works like a boom microphone to focus sound waves that are funneled to ears protected from distracting noise by a thick pad of fat. Other dolphins use their own sonar, too, but they also rely on vision.
The first mention of the baiji dates back 2,000 years to Guo Po, a Jin dynasty scholar who described it in the Erya, China's oldest dictionary. Later, the strange creature found its way into a love story, where it turned into a beautiful woman like a mermaid. That's why fishermen called the baiji the goddess of the Yangtze and said the animal could foretell bad weather.
The baiji was unknown in the West until 1918, when the 17-year-old son of a missionary shot and killed one while duck hunting. Charles Hoy and his father sent the skull to the Smithsonian Institution, where it was identified as a new species.
Not much more was known about the baiji until a Swiss scientist named Giorgio Pilleri came to China and studied the creature in the late 1970s.
As China's economy grew, the baiji started dying off. The sandbanks where the animals liked to lurk were dredged. Channels were dynamited. Baiji competed with fishermen for food, and were often entangled in nets. All the engine noise confused the dolphins. During the chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution, some hungry fishermen even took to eating the bitter flesh of the dolphin.
By the time China was slowly opening to the outside world after decades of self-imposed isolation, the dolphin was in trouble. In 1978, the central government decided to set up a special group of scientists to study the dying species; the group is now headed by Mr. Wang.
Known in China as Mr. Baiji, Mr. Wang first began to grow fond of the creature in 1980 while he was nurturing a badly injured baiji brought by some fishermen to the Institute of Hydrobiology in Wuhan, a city on the Yangtze.
Mr. Wang and others put the dolphin, which they named Qiqi, in a fishpond, applied a traditional Chinese poultice, and nursed the animal back to health. Mr. Wang and others took care of Qiqi until he died of old age in July 2002. "It was like losing a family member," Mr. Wang says.
Mr. Pfluger met Mr. Wang and was impressed with his dedication. Despite the baiji's critically endangered status, Mr. Pfluger felt that not enough had been done to save it. Part of the problem, Mr. Pfluger says, is that Chinese and international scientists disagreed on strategy. The Chinese wanted to take baiji out of the polluted river and relocate them to an isolated reserve, like one created for pandas. Many Western conservationists said the trauma of removing the dolphins could kill them.
A few finless porpoises -- smaller, stouter mammals with blunt noses -- were moved into a reserve, along with one baiji. The porpoises survived, but the captive baiji died.
By 2004, time was running out. Fewer fishermen were spotting baiji. Mr. Pfluger stepped in to help assemble a team of foreign and international scientists to go looking for them.
Now, and for the next six weeks, researchers will take turns scanning the horizon for any glint of snout and fin sticking through the water. If they find more than 10, they will discuss what to do next. The chances of that don't seem good. Most of the scientists on the boat aren't optimistic that they will find any.
For years, Mr. Pitman, the U.S. marine ecologist, has searched the world's rivers and oceans for rare species of dolphins and whales. This trip, he says, will be the toughest. "The chance of seeing the baiji is overshadowed by the foregone conclusion it's nearly extinct. I've come to pay my last respects."http://online.wsj.com/article/SB116533670959541229.html