The small, shy baiji is one of five species of freshwater river dolphin. In 2006, the Yangtze River dolphin became functionally extinct. It was the first human-caused extinction of a dolphin species.
Chinese legend tells of a beautiful princess whose family drowned her in the Yangtze when she refused to marry a man she didn’t love. The princess was reincarnated as a baiji. The Yangtze River dolphin became a symbol of peace, love and prosperity. People called the dolphin the “Goddess of the Yangtze”.
The story of the Chinese princess was written in the 3rd century BC. At the time, an estimated 5,000 baiji lived in the Yangtze River. Today, the baiji is functionally extinct. Although there was one sighting in 2007, indicating that a few baiji may still exist, experts believe there is no hope for recovery.
Fossil records show that the baiji first appeared 25 million years ago. Twenty million years ago, the baiji began to evolve into a freshwater species, moving from the Pacific Ocean into the Yangtze River.
The baiji is a small dolphin with a long, slender bill. It feeds on fish, and grows up to 8 ft (2.4m) in size. The dolphin is almost blind. A baiji fetus has eyes on the sides of its head, but as the fetus develops, the eyes travel closer to the top of its head, to make the best use of available light from the river’s surface. The baiji navigates and finds food by echolocation, sending out a series of beeps, clicks and whistles.
Hear a SOUND CLIP of the baiji.
An astonishing twelve percent of the world’s population lives along the Yangtze, and the river churns with diesel-engine boats of all sizes. The noise of motors and machinery thrums and roars beneath the surface. Along the shores and on the river, fishermen drop nets bearing wicked hooks, competing to catch more of the dwindling supply of fish. Factories and industries dump waste and toxins into the water. Amid this murky cacophony lives the Yangtze River dolphin.
The people along the Yangtze have always known of the dolphin’s existence, but it was only in the twentieth century that the baiji came to the attention of the Western world. An American killed a baiji in Dong Ting Lake in 1914, and shipped it to the Smithsonian Institute. It generated interest, but not much.
In the late 1950’s, Professor Zhou Kai Ya of the Nanjing University discovered a mysterious, unlabeled skeleton waiting for him when he returned from a field trip. He was surprised to discover that the skeleton was of a Yangtze River dolphin, found near Nanjing. Dr. Zhou interviewed local fisherman, who confirmed many baiji sightings. The baiji often got tangled in fishing nets, and were usually sold or eaten.