Decimated by overpopulation, pollution, boat traffic, massive dam-building, illegal electro-fishing, and habitat loss, the Yangtze River ecosystem has lost its ability to support marine life.

Baiji. (Photo: Stephen LEatherwood)

Six years ago, China’s most revered river animal, the baiji dolphin, a beautiful slender creature long celebrated in stories and legend as the reincarnation of a drowned princess, was declared “functionally extinct.”

The baiji

was usually found in pairs, but also in social groups of 10 to 16. They fed on small, freshwater fish, using their long, slightly upturned beak to probe the muddy river bottom.

It was long known the animal was in trouble. In the 1950’s the Yangtze supported an estimated 5,000 baiji. The population shrank to 300 in the 1980’s. Surveys in the late 1990’s found only 13 individuals. Urgent appeals for effective international action to help save the dolphin were made time and again. But what could be done…

Winked out

Meanwhile, a single male named Qi Qi survived at the Institute of Hydrobiology for more than 22 years. When Qi Qi died in 2002 he was the last of his species.

Baiji, Qi Qi. (Photo: Xiaoqiang Wang. IUCN)

Now the river is about to snuff out the Yangtze finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis).

Finless porpoise in the aquarium of a conservation centre in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. (Photo: Yangtze Finless Porpoise Conservation Society)

Known as jiangzhu or “river pig”

and not least for its mischievous smile, the porpoise is reported to have a level of intelligence comparable to that of a gorilla.

Where the baiji was difficult to get close to, conservationists say the porpoise likes to interact, to chat and play.

Thirty years ago the population was estimated at 2,000. A survey last year counted only 1,000. A spike in deaths this year is causing experts renewed anxiety. At least two of the deaths were attributable to electrofishing.

inless porpoise are seen on the busy Dongting Lake in Hunan province, China

Undated photograph. Two finless porpoise are seen on busy Dongting Lake in Hunan province, China. (Photo: Yangtze Finless Porpoise Conservation Society)

The jiangzhu

is decreasing at a rate that makes it rarer than the giant panda, China’s national treasure. The IUCN Red List has downgraded its status from Endangered to Critically Endangered. Conservationists give the dolphins only 10 to 15 years.