August 29, 2007
Dolphin Thought Extinct Spotted in China
BEIJING - A white dolphin native to China's Yangtze River that scientists declared extinct last year has possibly been spotted swimming in the wild, offering a small shred of hope for its revival, a researcher said Wednesday.
Wang Ding, a researcher with the Institute of Hydrobiology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said a man saw and shot a video of what appears to be a baiji or white flag dolphin in central China's Anhui province on Aug. 19.
The white flag dolphin survived for millions of years but was declared effectively extinct in December after a fruitless six-week search of its Yangtze River habitat.
Wang said the animal in the video looks and acts like a baiji and was seen about 25 miles downstream from Anhui's Tongling city "” a section of river that used to be known as a hotspot for white flag dolphins.
But he said he cannot be 100 percent sure because the video was taken from a distance of about 1,000 yards away and is not very clear.
A team of scientists will go to the area in September to look for the dolphin, he said.
If China were able to bring the animal back from the brink of extinction, it would help bolster a national image badly tarnished by severe air and water pollution.
The government says a quarter of the length of the country's seven main river systems are so polluted that even touching the water is harmful to the skin. Seven of the nine major lakes the agency monitors were equally toxic.
August Pfluger, a Swiss economist turned naturalist who helped put together last year's expedition, called the possible sighting "a big surprise" and "incredibly fantastic news."
"We declared the animal extinct so if there is one left, that would be fantastic," said Pfluger.
But even if one or more baiji are left, Pfluger and Wang both said they still consider the animal "functionally extinct."
Any surviving baiji are unlikely to be able to find each other for breeding in the huge river and are threatened by ship traffic, overfishing and the degradation of their habitat, Pfluger said.
"We don't have good hope for the future of the baiji," Wang said. "It will be gone for sure pretty soon."
If any wild baiji are found, scientists will try to capture them and move them to a reserve where they would try to breed them if possible, Wang said.
The baiji dates back 20 million years. Chinese called it the "goddess of the Yangtze."
Around 400 baiji were believed to be living in the Yangtze in the early 1980s, when China was just launching the free-market reforms that have transformed its economy. The last full-fledged search, in 1997, yielded 13 confirmed sightings, and a fisherman claimed to have seen a baiji in 2004.
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