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.[Full Text]