The Independent By Clifford Coonan in Beijing
Published: 08 August 2007
When the last baiji died, so too did a piece of China's soul. This peaceful mammal was known as the Goddess of the Yangtze and, for millions of years, she ruled the waters of China's longest river.
Measuring up to 8ft in length, the baiji is, or at least was, a relative of other freshwater dolphins found in the Mekong, Indus, Ganges and Amazon. Local legend has it that the baiji is the reincarnation of a princess who refused to marry a man she did not love and was drowned by her father for shaming the family.
To understand how devastating the extinction of the white-fin dolphin is, you need to understand the importance of the Yangtze to the Chinese national psyche. The Chinese call it simply chang jiang, or "long river", and as well as having huge symbolic value, it is an essential shipping route, is economically vital to the region and waters one of the most densely populated areas on Earth.
It runs 6,300km through nine provinces from western China's Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to the East China Sea. Recent reports have shown nearly 30 per cent of the river's major tributaries, including the Minjiang, Tuojiang, Xiangjiang and Huangpu rivers, are now seriously polluted.
Mindful of the dolphin's crucial symbolic importance, and keen to replicate the success at breeding endangered species it had with giant pandas, the Chinese government set up a reserve in a lake in central Hubei province to look after baiji. But they were too late - there were no dolphins left to start an artificial propagation programme.
The extinction of the white-fin dolphin is not the end of the story, either. China's other indigenous cetaceans are in trouble, facing similar threats from pollution and expansion.