(This article was originally published on OceanLines on August 9, 2007.)
It’s possible that you saw a news story about it, but probably not. There was, undoubtedly, some Hollywood starlet going in or out of rehab, or throwing a public tantrum somewhere — a story which the news media decided HAD to be covered because of its profound importance to the future of humanity. Well, the story you missed was that we humans have now managed to drive the first distinct species of whale into extinction. The Yangtze River dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer), also known as the Baiji, has been declared functionally extinct by a group of scientists who searched in vain for the animal during an expedition last fall. The last confirmed sighting of a Baiji dolphin was in the fall of 2004, and the last one in captivity died in 2002. Last fall’s expedition traveled twice up and down nearly the entire known range of the freshwater dolphin, from the Yangtze River delta near Shanghai to the western city of Yichang, in Hubei Province, China.
Not a single Baiji was observed during the six-week search, and while expedition scientists say it’s possible there are a handful of the animals remaining that they might have missed, it’s neither likely, nor likely significant, since that few animals would not be enough to propagate the species. While some sub-species of baleen whales have likely been driven to extinction by humans, the Baiji is the first known distinct whale species to suffer the fate. The Baiji are believed to have separated from Pacific Ocean dolphin populations more than 20 million years ago, establishing themselves as a distinct species in the freshwater of the Yangtze River.
Scientists say the cause of the Baiji’s extinction was primarily related to fishing practices in the Yangtze, where the dolphin died in large numbers as unwanted by-catch. There is enormous human pressure on the Yangtze River catchment area, where nearly 12 percent of the world’s population lives. This pressure also led to pollution in the river, reduction in the dolphin’s normal food sources, and noise pollution underwater from all the boat and ship traffic, which severely hampered the nearly-blind dolphins’ ability to hunt and navigate using sonar.
The Reuters news agency said the Baiji’s demise is the first reported mammalian extinction in the last fifty years. Unfortunately, given the precarious hold on life by such species as the Northern Pacific and Northern Atlantic Right Whales, not to mention the three remaining species of freshwater dolphins left in the world, it is not likely the last. Far too many people believe that issues like global warming, nature conservancy and preservation ecology can wait their turn for attention and resoures. Nero may have fiddled while his city burned, but while we fiddle, living beings are being wiped out of existence. While we take our sweet time, another light in the firmament of life has gone dark.
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