CHINA — In 2006, a survey conducted in December found a species of River Dolphin — known as the Baiji, or Chinese River Dolphin — to be functionally extinct. When an animal is classified as such, this means that there’s only a handful of survivors left, and that the odds don’t look good for the species to make a comeback. 12 years after the survey, China thinks they may have found at least one surviving member. That could mean that, possibly, there’s even more out there.
What’s a River Dolphin?
A River Dolphin is basically what it sounds like. It’s a dolphin that survives in freshwater; it only lives in rivers. This is not a formal classification of dolphin, but it’s an easy way to distinguish between the kinds of dolphins most people are aware of, and the four recognized species of river dolphins (with various numbers of subspecies).
There’s a few reasons why river dolphins aren’t as well known to the general public. For starters, they don’t have a wide range. There are only a few different species of river dolphin, and they are all restricted to small habitat areas.
Another reason is that there are not many river dolphins in captivity. The reasons for this range, but some of the problem has been that getting the animals to reproduce while in captivity has not proven to be successful. On top of this, in the 1950s to the 1970s, many Amazon River Dolphins were captured and sent away to be placed in captivity across the world, but out of the 100 that were sent, only 20 survived. Currently, only three river dolphins are in captivity; one in Venezuela, one in Peru, and one in Germany.
Why Are They Endangered?
We only know for sure that some species of river dolphins are endangered and face extinction. For example, the data for the Amazon River Dolphin is data deficient, or in other words, we don’t have enough information on the species to list it on the IUCN scale of endangerment.
However, with that said, many species of River Dolphins are extremely vulnerable to habitat destruction, which helps lead to their endangerment. Because they have such small habitat areas, when part of that habitat is taken over or destroyed, it can effect the entirety of the species.
Waste from the surrounding area of the Yangtze river, where the Baiji was once found, covered the water. Ship traffic became a huge problem, as the Yangtze developed because of economic growth in China. Noise pollution also played a role as the area of the Yangtze became more and more populated.
The last verified sighting of the Baiji was in 2004, two years before they were declared ‘functionally extinct’.
So …if China Did Find a Baiji, What Does That Mean?
Unfortunately, we don’t quite have the answer to that question. It would take a lot of work to get to a time where the Yangtze river is save enough for the Baiji to thrive. “…Destructive fishing methods such as high-voltage electrofishing, floating gill netting, and muro-ami, a technique that uses encircling nets with pounding devices, should be strictly forbidden, and any violation should be punished to protect both the dolphins and their prey,” Said Hua Yuanyu, a scientist who has been surveying and studying the species since the 80s.
Basically, the Yangtze River would have to become a protected area via the government if there is any hope to save the Baiji.
That said, Hua also said that the “reappearance of the baiji is another piece of evidence of the improved Yangtze ecology,” which by all means, is a very good sign for this particular animal. Another glimmer of hope is that the Baiji “does not live in solitude,” and live in schools, according to Li Xinyuan, who is a Baiji dolphin enthusiast and was there when the photo of what they think is the Baiji was taken.
On top of all of this, several fishermen have been confirmed to have seen the Baiji for themselves.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of all things STEM. Find her on Twitter.