China's 'extinct' dolphin returns to Yangtze River, say conservationists

Species not seen since being captured on camera in 2007

Tom Embury-Dennis
Tuesday 11 October 2016 19:51 BST
The Chinese river dolphin is considered functionally extinct.
The Chinese river dolphin is considered functionally extinct.

A dolphin declared functionally extinct 10 years ago may have been spotted by Chinese conservationists in the Yangtze river.

The last confirmed sighting of the Chinese river dolphin was in 2007, a year after scientists declared the species functionally extinct after failing to find any during a six-week search.

But the “goddess of the Yangtze”, which migrated up Asia’s longest river 20 million years ago, was reportedly seen leaping out of the water by witnesses last week.

Song Qi, who led the amateur expedition, told Sixth Tone that the baiji, or white dolphin, was spotted more than once by two different boats.

“I saw most of the body, and the second time around I saw its mouth and head,” he said.

“The front boat saw it three times.

“No other creature could jump out of the Yangtze like that. All the eyewitnesses — which include fishermen — felt certain that it was a baiji dolphin.”

The team failed to get any conclusive evidence of the sighting, with Mr Song saying their camera was unable to capture an image in any detail.

Professionals from the China Academy of Science’s Institute of Biology are examining sonar readings recorded by the team.

Not everyone is as confident about the alleged sighting. Biologist Samuel Turvey, who has written a book about the baiji’s extinction, told the Guardian he was sceptical.

“Extreme claims for the possible survival of probably extinct species require robust proof, and while I would deeply love there to be strong evidence that the baiji is not extinct, this isn’t it,” he said.

“Ecologically, the question is: if this is a baiji, where has the species been hiding for the past decade?”

China’s unprecedented economic growth has been at the expense of its rivers and seas in recent decades.

Pollution, river traffic and over fishing have all been cited by experts as reasons for the dolphins rapid decline.

The four-thousand mile river used provide a home for thousands of river dolphins in the 1960s, but by 1997 only 13 sightings were recorded.

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