Facts
  • Found in China
  • Found in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, China.
  • The world’s highest ranking EDGE mammal.
  • According to Chinese legend, this graceful freshwater dolphin is the reincarnation of a drowned princess.
  • The baij has been declared a national treasure of the highest order. Despite this, the species has received very little conservation attention over the past few decades, and it is highly likely that it is already extinct.
  • A leather factory was opened in the late 1950s in Zhejiang (Jiangsu Province) to use the baiji’s skin as material for bags and gloves. Notices were put up in front of purchasing stations along the river: ‘Baiji and finless porpoises are purchased in large number for five to ten cents a kilo’. However, the leather factory was short-lived, as commercial baiji stocks were soon exhausted (unsurprisingly!).
Threats
  • Threatened by the massive human impacts on the degraded Yangtze ecosystem. Over 400 million people live within the Yangtze River catchment, and the riverbanks are lined with large, industrialised cities. The river is one of the world’s busiest waterways, and is heavily utilised for transport, fishing and industrial development.
  • Probably the major cause of mortality is accidental by-catch from gill-nets, and illegal rolling hook lines and electro-fishing (which were both banned two decades ago in China because they kill dolphins, but which are still widely used along the Yangtze).
  • Other deaths have resulted from collisions with boats, and engineering explosions for maintaining navigation channels.
  • The Yangtze’s environment has been further degraded by pollution, upstream damming and dredging. In particular, the recently completed Three Gorges Dam is likely to affect downstream fish stocks and further reduce areas of suitable habitat.
  • Population fragmentation is also likely to have affected any surviving individuals.
Conservation Required
  • Conduct series of fishermen interviews along the Yangtze to establish whether any baiji survive in the river, and identify the specific causes of their catastrophic decline. Even if the baiji is already extinct, gathering this information is crucial as it will inform conservation strategies for the Yangtze Finless porpoise and other threatened river dolphins.
  • If surviving individuals are found, removal and translocation to a safer environment is an urgent priority.
  • Establishment of a captive breeding programme in a semi-natural reserve that was once part of the river system If sufficient individuals are found.


Proposed Actions

EDGE aims to support a series of fishermen interviews along the Yangtze River, to investigate which factors drove the Yangtze River dolphin to the edge of extinction, and whether local knowledge suggests that any dolphins might still survive in the degraded river system.

The Yangtze River dolphin or baiji is the only living representative of an entire family of mammals, having diverged from all other river dolphins more than 20 million years ago. Survey results indicate that the species has rapidly and continuously declined over the last 30 years, and an international survey conducted in November-December 2006 from Yichang to Shanghai (the entirety of the baiji's recent historical range) failed to locate any surviving animals.

If any baiji still survive in the Yangtze system, it is imperative to locate these last individuals as soon as possible. Even if the species is already extinct, there is no clear understanding of which threat processes caused its decline. The Yangtze Basin is home to over 10% of the world's human population, and the river system has experienced massive human habitat degradation from a number of causes. It is likely that the primary reason for baiji mortality has been legal and illegal fishing practices such as gill-nets, rolling hook lines and electro-fishing, but there are few data to determine whether this is the case. Any better information on the specific reasons for the decline of the baiji will be invaluable for developing conservation strategies for preserving the Yangtze's other threatened cetacean, the Yangtze finless porpoise (the world's only freshwater porpoise), and the two other Top 100 EDGE river dolphins - the Ganges and Indus River dolphins.

EDGE plans to support a series of 500-600 interviews with fishermen in the Yangtze main channel, side channels and tributaries, to gather data on when baiji were last seen in different parts of the river, how many baiji and porpoises are known to have been caught in fishing gear, and invaluable information on the impact of Yangtze fisheries on a range of freshwater species. The survey will also promote awareness amongst local people along the river about the importance of conserving the previous but fragile Yangtze ecosystem, and its many threatened species.

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Associated Blog Posts
27th Apr 09
Everyone loves dolphins, don’t they? And the baiji—the Yangtze River Dolphin—was so beautiful. Along the river, legends abound of its origin from the m...  Read

9th Apr 09
Here is the final blog from EDGE’s Dr Sam Turvey about his surveys along the Yangtze River in China, trying to discover the cause behind the disappearance ...  Read

22nd Jan 09
Here is the third blog from EDGE's Dr Sam Turvey about his surveys along the Yangtze River in China, trying to discover the cause behind the disappearance of...  Read

6th Jan 09
Here is the second blog from EDGE's Dr Sam Turvey about his surveys along the Yangtze River in China, trying to discover the cause behind the disappearance o...  Read

8th Dec 08
Here is the first blog from EDGE's Dr Sam Turvey about his surveys along the Yangtze River in China, trying to discover the cause behind the disappearance of...  Read

10th Apr 08
In the EDGE office we are anxiously awaiting the return of two of our team members - EDGE coordinator Carly Waterman and Dr. Sam Turvey have been in China c...  Read

7th Dec 07
It feels like history is repeating itself again in the Yangtze River. Earlier this year, scientists declared that the Yangtze River dolphin or baiji (Lipotes...  Read

12th Sep 07
The 2007 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is today being released, updating global understanding of the conservation status of the world’s plants and an...  Read

31st Aug 07
Only a few weeks after our research team sadly concluded that the baiji was probably extinct, we have received news that a baiji may have been seen – and f...  Read

8th Aug 07
After more than 20 million years on the planet it looks as if we have now lost the Yangtze River dolphin or baiji forever.  The question scientists are now...  Read

15th Jul 07
It’s a sad but true fact of life that much of a conservationist’s time is spent applying for funding. This week Sam has been focusing on writing grant a...  Read

6th Jun 07
The Qiantang River is a large river in eastern China that travels through Jiangxi and Zhejiang provinces. Although several hundred miles south of the Yangtze...  Read