They called it the “Goddess of the Yangtze” – a creature so rare that it was thought to bring fortune and protection to local fishermen and all those lucky enough to spot it.
But due to overfishing and human activity, it was on the brink of extinction and hasn’t been seen for decades.
“The baiji, or Yangtze river dolphin, was this unique and beautiful creature — there was nothing quite like it,” said Samuel Turvey, a British zoologist and conservationist who spent more than two decades in China tracking down the animal.
“It had been around for tens of millions of years and was part of its own mammalian family. There are other river dolphins in the world, but this one was very different, so nothing to do with anything else,” Turvey said. “Its demise was more than just another tragedy of some sort — it was a huge loss of river diversity in terms of how unique it was and left huge holes in the ecosystem.”
Experts have expressed serious concern that other rare native animal and plant species from the Yangtze are likely to suffer the same fate as the baiji river dolphin, as worsening climate change and extreme weather conditions take their toll on Asia’s longest river.
China is struggling with its worst heat wave ever and the Yangtze, the world’s third longest river, is drying up.
With below-average rainfall since July, water levels have fallen to record lows of 50% of normal levels for this time of year, exposing cracked riverbeds and even submerged islands visible.
The drought has already had a devastating effect on China’s main river, which stretches an estimated 6,300 kilometers (3,900 miles) from the Tibetan Plateau to the East China Sea near Shanghai, supplying water, food, transport and hydropower to more than 400 million people. people. people.
The human impact has been enormous. Factories have been closed to conserve electricity and water supplies for tens of thousands of people have been affected.
Less discussed, experts say, is the environmental impact that climate change and accompanying extreme weather events have had on the hundreds of protected and endangered wildlife and plant species living in and around the river.
“The Yangtze is one of the world’s most ecologically critical rivers for biodiversity and freshwater ecosystems — and we are still discovering new species every year,” said conservation ecologist Hua Fangyuan, an assistant professor at Peking University.
“Many of the small (known) and unknown fish and other aquatic species are most likely quietly facing extinction and we just don’t know enough.”
Over the years, conservationists and scientists have identified and documented hundreds of wild animal and plant species native to the Yangtze.
Among them are the finless harbor porpoise of the Yangtze which, like the baiji, is threatened with extinction due to human activity and habitat loss, and critically endangered reptiles such as the Chinese alligator and the Yangtze giant softshell turtle – believed to be the largest living species of freshwater turtle in the world.
Experts have also noted a drastic decline in many native freshwater fish species, such as the now-extinct Chinese paddlefish and sturgeon.
At great risk is the Chinese giant salamander, one of the largest amphibians in the world. Wild populations have crashed, zoologist Turvey said, and the species is “now on the brink of extinction.”
“While it’s a protected species, Chinese giant salamanders are more threatened by climate change — increasing global temperatures and droughts certainly won’t do it any good if it’s already extremely vulnerable,” Turvey said.
“They have long faced threats such as poaching, habitat loss and pollution, but if you add climate change to the mix, their chances of survival become drastically slim,” he added.
“They can only live in freshwater environments and lower water levels would inevitably put greater pressure on their numbers across China.”
Conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) say the plight of the Yangtze is a major concern not only for the Chinese people and government, but also for the wider international community.
“Rivers around the world, from Europe to the United States, have dropped to historically low flow levels that are negatively impacting ecosystems,” said lead scientist Jeff Opperman.
“Reduced river flow and warmer water in the Yangtze pose a threat to freshwater species and increase pressure on already critically endangered animals such as the remaining Yangtze finless porpoises and Chinese alligators left in the wild. Lower river levels also impact the health of (near) lakes and wetlands, which are vital for millions of migratory birds along the East Asian flight path.”
Hua, the conservation ecologist, said more public awareness and efforts were needed to help China’s shrinking great river. “Humans depend on nature for their survival, period. This is a lesson for any civilization,” she said.
“The Yangtze is the longest river in China and (all of) Asia and has long been the cradle of civilization. Despite serious threats and losses over the years, there is still a lot of biodiversity to be preserved in and along the Yangtze.”
Few will deny the importance and symbolism of the Yangtze. But experts say unless action is taken quickly, more species will follow the fate of the baiji and Chinese paddlefish.
Turvey, the British zoologist, warned of the kind of complacency that could make the baiji disappear.
“The Yangtze was a jewel in the Asian crown. There is still so much biodiversity to fight for and we should not give up hope of saving species such as giant salamanders, river reptiles and others,” Turvey said.
“If there’s one thing we can learn from the death of the Yangtze River dolphin, it’s that extinction is forever and we can’t afford to take it lightly.”