The rare white-flag dolphin, called baiji, has seemingly disappeared from the Yangtze River, its only habitat. If true, the estimated three-million-year-old species is now extinct.
A 30-member expedition made up of both Chinese and foreign researchers conducted a nearly month-long survey of the river, but they failed to spot even one of the dolphins, China's Xinhua News Agency said on December 4. The white-flag dolphin, which lives only in the Chinese river, is called a "living fossil'' because it maintains the same appearance as when it came to the Yangtze from the sea an estimated three million years ago. In a 1997 survey, 13 baiji were confirmed to be living in the river.
If this dolphin is extinct, it would bear the sad distinction of being the first whale to disappear due to human action. Scientists say that pollution and massive development destroyed the white-flag dolphin's Yangtze River habitat, as well as overfishing methods using poisonous substances and explosives. In addition, noise from ships on the river seemed to disturb the baiji, as porpoises make sound waves as they swim.
The expedition surveyed the 1,700-meter-long river using special equipment to detect the sound of dolphins. They do have a faint hope left, as some sounds gathered have yet to be identified.
Wang Ding, one of the expedition's leaders and a hydrobiologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences said, "We can't say for sure that the white-flag dolphin is extinct. However, the population has dropped dramatically.'' According to Wang, there were about 6,000 white-flag dolphins in the 1950s.