One of the world's oldest species is "functionally extinct"
The Yangtze River Dolphin, thought of as one of the world's most endangered animals, is now estimated to be the first cetacean to go extinct in our lifetime. The river dolphin, also known as baiji, is only found in the Yangtze River, China's longest river.
December 13, 2006 marked the end of a 39 day expedition by a team of Chinese and foreign scientists to track down the remaining members of the species. Unfortunately the search ended with not a single sighting of the river dolphin. In the 1980's there were reportedly 300-400 baiji in the Yangtze River, however, the last official sighting of the baiji was in 2004.
It is believed that the 20 million year old dolphin has vanished due to human activity. Overfishing and the depletion of prey species, entanglement in fishing gear and ship collisions due to increased ship traffic are believed to all have contributed to the demise of the baiji. The lengthy construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the largest dam in the world, altered the habitat of the baiji and also introduced a great deal of other disturbances such as noise, which is detrimental to a species that has poor eyesight and depends on echolocation for survival.
Despite the baiji's listing as a Protected Animal of the First Order by the Chinese government in 1975, an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and a critically endangered species on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species, the animal has not been able to bounce back from extinction. Chinese officials had also designated a protected area for the baiji however the area proved insufficient and did not encompass the full length of the dolphin's habitat. Futile captive breeding efforts were also attempted in China for years.
On the expedition to find the baiji, scientists also surveyed the Yangtze Finless Porpoise, also listed as critically endangered on the IUCN's Red List. Researchers only found 400 individuals remaining. The disappearance of the unique Yangtze River dolphin should be a wake up call for Chinese officials to minimize the threats to marine life in order to prevent the disappearance of yet another species.