- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2006

BEIJING — A nearly blind white dolphin that survived for millions of years is effectively extinct, an international expedition declared yesterday after ending a fruitless six-week search of its Yangtze River habitat.

The baiji would be the first large aquatic mammal driven to extinction since hunting and overfishing killed off the Caribbean monk seal in the 1950s.

For the baiji, the culprit was a degraded habitat — busy ship traffic, which confounds the sonar the dolphin uses to find food, and overfishing and pollution in the Yangtze waters of eastern China, the expedition reported.

“The baiji is functionally extinct. We might have missed one or two animals but it won’t survive in the wild,” said August Pfluger, a Swiss economist turned naturalist who helped put together the expedition. “We are all incredibly sad.”

The baiji dates back 20 million years. Chinese called it the “goddess of the Yangtze.” For China, its disappearance symbolizes how unbridled economic growth is changing the country’s environment irreparably, some environmentalists assert.

“It’s a tremendously sad day when any species goes extinct. It becomes more of a public tragedy to lose a large, charismatic species like the river dolphin,” said Chris Williams, manager of river basin conservation for the World Wildlife Fund in Washington.

Randall Reeves, chairman of the Swiss-based World Conservation Union’s Cetacean Specialist Group, who took part in the Yangtze mission, said expedition participants were surprised at how quickly the dolphins disappeared.

“Some of us didn’t want to believe that this would really happen, especially so quickly,” he said. “This particular species is the only living representative of a whole family of mammals. This is the end of a whole branch of evolution.”

The damage to the baiji’s habitat is also affecting the Yangtze finless porpoise, whose numbers have fallen to below 400, the expedition found.

“The situation of the finless porpoise is just like that of the baiji 20 years ago,” the group said in a statement citing Wang Ding, a Chinese hydrobiologist and co-leader of the expedition. “Their numbers are declining at an alarming rate. If we do not act soon they will become a second baiji.”

Mr. Pfluger said China’s Agriculture Ministry, which approved the expedition, had hoped the baiji would be another panda, an animal brought back from the brink of extinction in a highly marketable effort that bolstered the country’s image.

The team of 30 scientists and crew from China, the United States and four other countries searched a 1,000-mile heavily trafficked stretch of the Yangtze, where the baiji once thrived.

Around 400 baiji were thought to be living in the Yangtze in the early 1980s, when China was just starting the free-market reforms that have transformed its economy. The last full-fledged search in 1997 yielded 13 confirmed sightings, and a fisherman claimed to have seen a baiji in 2004.

At least 20 to 25 baiji would now be needed to give the species a chance to survive, Mr. Wang said.

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