Mongabay Features

A farewell to the Yangtze’s ghost, the Baiji

In the quiet flow of the Yangtze, a silent departure occurred. The Baiji, China’s exclusive river dolphin, known scientifically for its distinction and affectionately for its grace, has succumbed to the inevitable, declared “functionally extinct.” This term, clinical yet profound, marks the end of a lineage that navigated the waters of the Yangtze for over 20 million years, a testament to evolutionary success until its recent decline.

Born of the Pacific, the Baiji found refuge and realm in the Yangtze, evolving distinctively to become a symbol of the river’s once-vibrant ecosystem. However, the forces of modernity – pollution, overfishing, unyielding boat traffic, and the unrelenting rise of dams – conspired against the Baiji, culminating in a demise that was as much anticipated as it was lamented. The species’ decline, from a cautious estimate of 300 individuals in 1986 to the vanishing point today, parallels the transformation of the Yangtze, from the “Amazon of the East” to a shadow of its former self, its estuary now a dead zone devoid of life-sustaining oxygen.

In a final effort to glimpse the Baiji, researchers embarked on a 26-day odyssey, scouring over 2,000 miles of river, only to be met with silence. The absence of sightings since 2004, and the death of Qi Qi, the last captive Baiji, in 2002, underscore a poignant reality: while a few may linger in the murky depths, their fate is sealed, a population no longer viable.

The Baiji’s passing is not singular in its tragedy but is a harbinger, leaving behind a legacy intertwined with the fate of its riverine cousins across the globe – from the Ganges to the Amazon – all threatened, all facing uncertain futures. Yet, in the wake of its extinction, the Baiji emerges as a symbol, a cautionary tale of loss in the Anthropocene, urging a reevaluation of our stewardship of the natural world.

As the international community grapples with the implications, the Baiji’s story serves as a stark reminder of the cost of progress untempered by ecological conscience. Though no memorial service is held, the completion of the Three Gorges Dam stands as an inadvertent monument to the Baiji, a legacy of what is lost when nature is sidelined in the march of development.

In the ledger of extinction, the Baiji will soon be officially recorded, the first large aquatic mammal to vanish since the Caribbean monk seal. Its departure leaves a void in the Yangtze, now inhabited by fewer than 400 Yangtze Finless Porpoises, the river’s remaining freshwater cetaceans, themselves teetering on the brink.

As the world reflects on the Baiji’s odyssey, from Pacific wanderer to a spirit of the Yangtze, its story implores us to look upon our rivers, our natural treasures, with reverence and care, lest we find ourselves chronicling the next obituary of the natural world, a narrative of loss that could have been averted.

By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.