Defying Extinction: Yangtze River Dolphin Appears

By Lindsay Aylesworth

For those scientists, policy makers, and tourists that thought the Yangtze River Dolphin was extinct- think again.

For those scientists, policy makers, and tourists that thought the Yangtze River Dolphin was extinct- think again. A leading scientist at the Chinese Academy of Science has confirmed a businessman’s video recording of a “big white animal” is indeed the Yangtze River Dolphin. The recording captured in mid August by a businessman on holiday, is the first sighting of dolphin in three years.

The 2007 IUCN Red List of Endangered Species lists the Yangtze River Dolphin as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct). This classification was mostly due to the Yangtze Fresh Water Dolphin Expedition in 2006 that sent scientists on a six-week expedition along the Yangtze River in search of finding the dolphin. But the highest quality optical instruments and underwater microphones proved useless as not a single species was seen by the scientists on two large research vessels. Scientific consensus was that the Yangtze River Dolphin was functionally extinct-meaning there are not enough individuals in the population for the species to be viable, and population levels were too low to maintain an important role in the ecosystem. The last confirmed sighting of a Yangtze River Dolphin was in 2004, and a survey in 1997 identified 13 sightings of dolphins.

The extinction of the Yangtze River Dolphin is important because it will be the first recorded present day extinction that is due strictly to anthropogenic causes. The Yangtze River Dolphin’s decline can be attributed to destructions of habitat via dam building, dredging, and chemical pollution, as well as illegal fishing and boat strike. The Yangtze River is the third largest river in the world and the largest river in China and Asia.  It connects China’s interior regions to the coast, which makes it extremely important for international shipping. This has lead to an increased number of vessel strikes on the Yangtze Dolphin that is only likely to abate because of the decreasing number of surviving species.
“As the panda is China’s symbol of the destruction of forests, freshwater dolphins are strong symbols for the over-exploitation of Asia’s major freshwater ecosystems” according to the head of the Baiji Foundation, August Pfluger.

The threats still posed to the Yangtze River Dolphin have not disappeared since the confirmed sighting and with only one dolphin in the population, the number is too low to ensure survival. However, scientists and the world can breathe a sigh of relief that it is not extinct…. yet.

The Yangtze River Dolphin is one of six species of freshwater dolphins and whistles.

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