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Friday, December 15, 2006

Scientists say the 'Yangtze goddess' is effectively extinct



AP, BEIJING

Friday, Dec 15, 2006



China river dolphin or baiji photo

A rare, nearly blind white dolphin that survived for millions of years is effectively extinct, an international expedition declared after ending a fruitless six-week search of the mammal's Yangtze River habitat.

The baiji would be the first large aquatic mammal driven to extinction since hunting and overfishing killed off the Caribbean monk seal in the 1950s. For the baiji, the culprit was a degraded habitat -- busy ship traffic, which confounds the sonar the dolphin uses to find food, and overfishing and pollution in the Yangtze, the expedition said on Wednesday.

"The baiji is functionally extinct. We might have missed one or two animals but it won't survive in the wild," said August Pfluger, a Swiss economist turned amateur naturalist who helped put together the expedition. "We are all incredibly sad."

The baiji dates back 20 million years. Chinese called it the "goddess of the Yangtze." For China, its disappearance symbolizes how unbridled economic growth is changing the country's environment, environmentalists say.

The damage to the baiji's habitat is also affecting the Yangtze finless porpoise, whose numbers have fallen to below 400, the expedition said.

"The situation of the finless porpoise is just like that of the baiji 20 years ago," the group said in a statement citing Wang Ding, a hydrobiologist and co-leader of the expedition. "Their numbers are declining at an alarming rate. If we do not act soon they will become a second baiji."

Pfluger said China's Agriculture Ministry, which approved his expedition, had hoped the baiji would be another panda, an animal brought back from the brink of extinction in a highly marketable effort that bolstered the country's image.

The expedition was the most professional and meticulous ever launched for the baiji, Pfluger said. The team of 30 scientists and crew from China, the US and four other nations searched a 1,700km heavily trafficked stretch of the Yangtze.



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