An adult male baiji river dolphin in captivity

QiQi, a baiji river dolphin that died in 2002, was probably one of the last of his species © Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences

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The baiji: Why this extinct river dolphin still matters

It has been more than 20 years since the last confirmed sighting of a wild baiji.

These river dolphins are the first cetaceans (the mammal group that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises) to have gone extinct in recent history.

But did we ever stand a chance of saving them, and how much of a wake-up call has this loss proved to be?

A barrage of stories on the baiji's extinction hit the news in 2006, with headlines proclaiming the loss of these unique animals at the hands of humans.

Despite experts knowing for decades that catastrophe was potentially on its way, until the extinction of the species was officially declared, the baiji was just another conservation story and received relatively little attention beyond those determined to save them. 

What happened to the baiji river dolphin?

The baiji, Lipotes vexillifer, was a species of dolphin found exclusively in China's Yangtze River. It's sometimes also known as the white dolphin or Chinese river dolphin.

Only a handful of dolphin species live in the world's river systems. Although they are only distantly related, river dolphins are alike in many ways, with long, thin beaks, a distinctive body shape and enhanced acoustic abilities that help them to compensate for small eyes and poor eyesight. The species similarities are the result of convergent evolution, when their different cetacean ancestors adapted to similar habitats in similar ways. 

A baiji skull

A baiji skull from the Museum's collection. Although this species is now likely to be extinct, scientists can still learn a lot about these animals from their bones.

Human activities on the Yangtze River resulted in the baiji becoming one of the world's rarest and most threatened species. One of the greatest threats to their survival was overfishing, which not only robbed them of their prey but caused them to drown following entanglement in gear such as rolling hook long-lines and nets.

Shipping traffic also put pressure on the baiji. The Yangtze River is one of China's main economic trade arteries and increasing numbers of boats and noise pollution increased the chances of the poor-sighted dolphins colliding with ships and their propellors. On top of this, pollution and aggressive habitat modification also contributed to deaths.

It is thought that there could have been thousands of baijis in the Yangtze in the 1950s, but by the 1980s survey data indicated that their estimated numbers had already dropped to a mere 400. The population continued to crash, and by the late 1990s only a handful of individuals were left.

To tackle this problem, one of the first strategies put in place was the creation of protected areas within the river.

Professor Sam Turvey of the Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London, explains, 'Sections of the main river were designated as cetacean reserves. It's a hands-off approach - if you can mitigate the threats in the species' natural environment, you then don't need to do something more intensive.'

'However, it wasn't really possible to create protected areas that would remove all of those threats. If pollution is being released into the river, then it can flow downstream through protected areas, and ship traffic still needs to get upstream to reach inland ports.'

Later research also showed that instead of staying in one place, baiji seemed to follow migratory fish stocks up and down the river, limiting the effectiveness of fixed safe havens within the main channel. 

Boats sailing through a gorge on the Yangtze River

Shipping traffic was one of the key threats to the baiji. Increasing numbers of boats using the Yangtze raised the chances of the river dolphins being involved in ship strikes. © Daniel Doerfler/ Shutterstock

There was an intention to initiate a breeding programme in one of the Yangtze's oxbow lakes. These spaces have no ship traffic and reduced levels of fishing and pollution. The idea was that baiji would be bred in this 'semi-natural' reserve and then these individuals would be used to repopulate the main river.

But there was a delay between planning and practical action. One dolphin was caught and put into the oxbow lake in the 1990s but died after becoming entangled in fishing gear that hadn't been removed. By the 2000s, there were so few river dolphins left that it was almost impossible to find them, let alone catch one for the breeding programme.

Between the 1970s and 1990s several baiji were kept in captivity in China, though they typically didn't last long. The longest lived was QiQi, a male that survived for 22 years in a dolphinarium in Wuhan. However, as he was never paired with an adult female, breeding wasn't a possibility.

In 2006, scientists, including Professor Sam Turvey, carried out a comprehensive search of the Yangtze for any remaining baiji. But, by the end of the six-week survey, not a single river dolphin had been found - an experience Sam says he 'wouldn't wish on anyone'.

'We had been trying to kickstart the baiji recovery programme,' explains Sam. 'The survey was going to be the start of how the baiji was going to be saved. But as the weeks passed, there was this sinking realisation that this was actually the end of everything, not the start of it.'

In December that year, scientists suggested that the baiji should be considered functionally extinct, succinctly saying that even if any undetected individuals still remained somewhere in the Yangtze, the population was no longer viable. 

Is the baiji extinct?

Since 2006, there have been multiple alleged baiji sightings. The latest of these appears to date from 2016.

While it would be wonderful to think that the baiji still persists somewhere in the Yangtze River, out of sight of people, unsubstantiated stories of a miraculous survival risk doing more harm than good.

Sam explains, 'When you get a positive alleged baiji report and the media seizes on it, we never hear what happens afterwards. Do any scientists go back and properly investigate whether it was really there?'

'There's never been a follow-up confirmation for any of these reports, and the Yangtze is still surveyed regularly to monitor the populations of other wildlife, such as freshwater porpoises. Where are the baiji always hiding during these exhaustive surveys?'

'Positive noises of hope can be really dangerous! They can downplay the fact that the baiji is gone and leave people thinking that everything is actually fine in the Yangtze.'

The last confirmed evidence of a wild baiji - a photograph - is from 2002. This was also the year the last captive dolphin, QiQi, died. There have been no verified sightings since.

However, it is hard to be certain there are no baiji left. As Sam puts it, 'is absence of evidence actually evidence of absence?'

He adds, 'This is an issue facing any endangered species that is so rare that you can't find it if you go to look for it - does it mean it's definitely gone?'

A male baiji in captivity

This is QiQi, a male baiji that lived in a dolphinarium in Wuhan from 1980 to 2002. © Roland Seitre (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Is the baiji still important?

The baiji is the first cetacean to have likely gone extinct at the hands of humans, but it's not the first marine mammal to face this fate.

In living memory, we lost the Caribbean monk seal and the Japanese sea lion in the 1950s and 1970s respectively. Before that, Steller's sea cow - a giant relative of manatees and dugongs - was driven to extinction by 1768. All three extinctions were caused by humans.

Today there are critically endangered cetaceans in similar situations to what the baiji found itself in only a few decades ago. For example, only around 400 North Atlantic right whales are left, mirroring the 1980s baiji population. The vaquita - a porpoise endemic to the northern end of the Gulf of California - is in an even more perilous position with fewer than 20 thought to be remaining - similar to the baiji population in the late 1990s.  

The problem, of course, is much bigger than this. Around one million species of plants and animals currently face extinction.  

It's unlikely we'll see the baiji in the Yangtze again, but like many extinct species, remains of these animals can be found in museum collections.

Principal Curator Richard Sabin is responsible for maintaining and developing the Museum's marine mammal collection.

He says, 'The single baiji specimen we have was collected in 1927 from Dongting Lake [located in a flood basin of the Yangtze River]. It was an animal that was accidently caught in fishing nets.'

'It was placed in refrigerated storage until Percy Stammwitz, the Museum's chief model maker, went over to China to put the body in a plaster cast. From that he produced a whole-body model and various other duplicates of the head, flippers and other anatomical features.'

A full body model of a baiji suspended off the ground in an exhibition

This baiji model, on display in 2013 for the 'Extinction: Not the End of the World?' exhibition, was created by the Museum's chief model maker, Percy Stammwitz, who also worked on the Museum's vast blue whale model.

The body was then transported from China to London and added to the Museum's research collection. But what makes an almost 100-year-old skeleton of an extinct animal useful to modern science?

'Apart from traditional comparative and morphometric uses [which rely on being able to study the size and shape of an animals features], value also lies in what the bones contain,' explains Richard. 'Marine mammal skeletons in natural history collections can be used to study DNA, diet, migrations and levels of pollution present in the ocean.'

While these data can no longer be used to save the baiji, they could help experts developing conservation and management strategies for closely related, ecologically similar species that are currently under threat.

Could we have saved the baiji?

One question to ponder is, if the baiji were alive and declining today, would its story be any different?

We can never be certain of the answer, but from looking at current examples, if we had the right resources in place at the right time, it's possible we'd be able to have a good go at saving it.

Consider the vaquita. Despite there being so few left, it may yet be possible to save them. A lot of money is being invested in their conservation and novel techniques are being used. The Mexican government has also attempted to address the root of the vaquita's problem by banning fishing activity across its range. There's also a current parallel in China, with the government there imposing a 10-year ban on fishing in the Yangtze to try to prevent further species from going extinct.

A North Atlantic right whale at the surface of the ocean

Human activities are driving the North Atlantic right whale towards extinction. It's thought there are now only around 400 individuals left. © Porco_Rosso/ Shutterstock

The vaquita isn't alone. Other species are being pulled back from the edge of extinction through dedicated conservation efforts. Just look at New Zealand's Kākāpō or the Chatham Islands' black robin.

In contrast, however, in August 2022 the dugong was declared functionally extinct in Chinese waters. Its decline was likely due to human pressures such as entanglement in fishing gear and the degradation of seagrass beds.

Then there is the Chinese paddlefish, which was one of the world's largest freshwater fish. Development of a massive hydroelectric dam in the Yangtze prevented the paddlefish from reaching its upstream spawning grounds, which is thought to have played a key role in its recent extinction.

'That extinction was barely noticed anywhere in the world,' says Sam. 'Various other species and ecosystem services in the Yangtze have also continued to decline.'

An important example is the Yangtze finless porpoise, which is now critically endangered. They face similar anthropogenic pressures as the baiji, and their population began to crash from the 1990s onwards. But, there is a glimmer of hope for this species.

'They have seen a lot more conservation attention,' explains Sam. 'There are ex-situ populations [those created outside of the animal's natural habitat] and a lot of work is happening on the ground to prevent them from becoming a second baiji.'

Two Yangtze finless porpoises in captivity

The Yangtze finless porpoise is at risk of extinction, but lots of work is being done to try and save them, such as through breeding programmes. These individuals are housed at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. © Huangdan2060 (CC BY 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

It's possible that a lack of conspicuousness is one of the reasons declines in some species, such as the Chinese paddlefish or baiji, go under the radar. It can be more difficult to keep track of species that spend their lives underwater.

'If you don't see lions, giraffes, zebras or wildebeest on your safari, then you notice,' says Richard. 'But in the oceans, most of what lives there is hidden. If they go missing, do we even know?'

But, just because a species spends most of its life hidden from view or isn't on the tourist trail, doesn't mean it isn’t important.

Richard adds, 'Cetaceans tend to be the top predators and keystone species, playing an important role in maintaining a healthy ocean ecosystem. For example, if we lose North Atlantic right whales - or any of the large whale species - we lose all of their whale pump activity­­­­­­.'

'Whales feed at depth but have to come to the surface to poo, and by doing that they provide crucial nutrients for phytoplankton.'

Phytoplankton - as well as providing up to 50% of the oxygen we breathe - is at the base of the ocean food web for zooplankton, small fish and crustaceans, such as krill. In turn, krill, for example, are a food source for a huge number of marine animals, including some whales.

'It's not just about not seeing animals,' says Richard. 'It's about understanding that their absence from the ocean ecosystem has "potential catastrophe" written all over it for entire food webs.'

'It's dangerous to remove a keystone species because you just don't know how the ecosystem is going to respond to its absence.'

Lessons from the baiji's extinction

As for the baiji's extinction, there are some key lessons we can take away.

Sam says, 'I think with the baiji there were unforgivable delays in action. That is a very general lesson that can be learned. You need to act long before the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute.'

'It's not a case of finger-pointing. It's just that it went wrong. The species wasn't saved and therefore that was a conservation failure.'

'Unless we consciously remind ourselves and re-examine failures in conservation, as well as successes, those same mistakes are going to happen, and the same scenario is going to play out again.'