Potential Sighting of Yangtze River Dolphin

Yangtze River dolphin / baiji
Image credit: Wikipedia.

Earlier this month, I wrote about the likely extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin, also called the baiji. Today’s New Scientist reported that a video shot by a Chinese man on 19 August may show a baiji, though it is difficult to tell from the quality of the footage. Even if it is a baiji, however, one animal is insufficient to repopulate a species. While it is theoretically possible to repopulate from a single breeding pair of animals, in practice, there is typically not enough genetic diversity for this to be successful. It seems likely that even if this sighting is confirmed, the animal is still “functionally” extinct, and that the inevitable “true” extinction has only been delayed by some years.

What has made this especially poignant is that I’ve been reading a book lent to me by a good friend: Last Chance to See, by Douglas Adams (the author the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and Mark Carwardine. Published in 1990, the documentary is a companion to a BBC radio series highlighting endangered animal species. With his usual wit and humor, Adams narrates their journeys to find these unique creatures. I am just reading the chapter where the group is in China, searching for baijis. Sadly, their effort to draw attention to the plight of the baijis seems to have been futile; less than twenty years later the animal is already extinct or will be so shortly.

At this point, the only potential hope I see is for us to keep the baiji alive long enough (assuming the sighting was real) for us to develop the genetic technology to perpetuate the species. A different part of the book discusses the kakapo, a critically endangered flightless bird found in New Zealand. When Adams asks Don Merton of the New Zealand Department of Conservation about what he thinks the long-term prospects are, he replies:

Well, anything’s possible, and with genetic engineering, who knows. If we can keep them going during our lifespan, it’s over to the next generation with their new range of tools and techniques and science to take it from there. All we can do is perpetuate the during our lifetime and try to hand them on in as good a condition as possible to the next generation and hope like heck that they feel the same way about them as we do. (“Heartbeats in the Night”; p. 142)

It is now up to our generation to develop the science and cultivate the interest to preserve these creatures. And perhaps there is hope: the number of kakapo has apparently doubled since Adams and friends visited New Zealand; there are now eighty-six. And the book, too, lives on in a way; an interested reader maintains a blog following the status of the featured animals and others. (See his entry on the potential sighting of the baiji.)