Institute of Hydrobiology, Wuhan, China

One of the last known baiji, photographed in captivity before its death in 2002. Nobody eats baiji, but it became a bycatch of other fishing.


The New York Times


December 26, 2006
Letter From the Field

A Fellow Mammal Leaves the Planet

Robert L. Pitman has spent 30 years studying the world’s whales, dolphins and other aquatic mammals. He returned to San Deigo, Calif., last week after a fruitless six-week expedition in which teams of five observers on two vessels scoured the Yangtze River from the Three Gorges Dam to Shanghai, seeking the last members of the rarest cetacean species of all, a white, nearly blind dolphin called the baiji, Lipotes vexillifer. The dolphin is now considered, at best, “functionally extinct.” Dr. Pitman wrote this note in response to a reporter’s question about the broader implications of this, the first apparent extinction of a cetacean in modern times.

Locally, the Yangtze River is in serious trouble; the canary in the coal mine is dead. In addition to baiji, the Yangtze paddlefish is (was) probably the largest freshwater fish in the world (at least 21 feet), and it hasn’t been seen since 2003; the huge Yangtze sturgeon breeds only in tanks now because it has no natural habitat (a very large dam stands between it and its breeding grounds). The whole river ecosystem is going down the tubes in the name of rampant economic development. There is a huge environmental debt accruing on the Yangtze, and baiji was perhaps just the first installment.

Globally, scientists have been warning for some time of an impending anthropogenic mass extinction worldwide. Previous bouts of human-caused extinctions were due mainly to directed take: humans hunting for food. What we are seeing now is probably the first large animal that has ever gone extinct merely as an indirect consequence of human activity: a victim of market forces and our collective lifestyle. Nobody eats baiji and no tourists pay to see it — there were no reasons to take it deliberately, but there was no economic reason to save it, either. It is gone because too many people got too efficient at catching fish in the river and it was incidental bycatch. And it is perhaps a view of the future for much of the rest of the world and an indication that the predicted mass extinction is arriving on schedule.

For the Chinese, I think that losing a half-blind river dolphin and a couple of oversize fish was a fair trade for all the money that is being made there now. China is an economic model envied by most of the rest of the world, and I think that many other (especially third world) countries will be confronted with similar decisions of economic development versus conservation of habitats and animals, and the response will be the same. From now on we will have to choose which animals will be allowed to live on the planet with us, and baiji got cut in the first round. It is a sad day. I know it is their country, but the planet belongs to all of us. We came to say goodbye to baiji, but after its being in the river for 20 million years, we apparently missed it by two years.

Sorry if I got a little emotional here, but the disappearance of an entire family of mammals is an inestimable loss for China and for the world. I think this is a big deal and possibly a turning point for the history of our planet. We are bulldozing the Garden of Eden, and the first large animal has fallen. Robert L. Pitman, NOAA Fisheries Ecosysem Studies Program

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