River Dolphins – Baiji and Shushuk
River dolphins are freshwater mammals found in inland water bodies mainly in large rivers like Yangtze River
in China or Ganges River in Bangladesh and India. It´s one of the ‘most-friendly’ animal to humans although
activities of the latter are largely to be blamed for the ‘near-extinction’ conditions of these wonderful animals.
An expedition by a group of international scientists in 2006 in the Yangtze River failed to get a single trace that this
rare mammal, named Baiji, which lived more than 20 million years, is still surviving. Finally the species declared
to be ‘functionally extinct’ which literally means there is in fact no chance to see these dolphins swimming again in
the Yangtze River but may be somehow someway few can still be surviving.
Baiji is a light gray long-snouted (projecting nose) freshwater dolphin with poor eye sight and relies on sonar to
navigate through the river. Their numbers decreased dramatically from 400 in 1986 to only 13 in 1997. Nine years
later there is not a single one to trace although a local fisherman claimed to spot one in 2004. But that can be an
Yangtze is the Asia’s longest river and third in the world after Nile and Amazon. The river is about 6,380 km long
and flows from Qinghai province in the west into the East China Sea at Shanghai. But Baiji was mainly swimming
in the middle and lower reaches of the river within a length of 1700 km.
The reasons for the disappearance of these mammals could be attributed to the causes such as
- massive pollution from the industries along the rivers which mainly discharge their
untreated effluents directly into the river
- lack of food sources as fisherman use kilometer-long nets for fishing which also
cause accidental demise of Baiji
- unprecedented increase of river traffic in the Yangtze further foul the river water and
kill the poor-sighted animals in many instances as the hulls and propellers of ships
can run down or tear up the dolphins
- The construction of the Three Gorges Dam also led to habitat loss for Baiji.
Ganges River dolphin, another type of river dolphin, known as ‘Shushuk’, is found in the Ganges and Brahmaputra
in Bangladesh and India and in Meghna, Karnaphuli and Sangu rivers in Bangladesh. The total population of Shushuk
is not clearly known but may range from hundreds to few thousands. The dolphin is already in the list of endangered
species of IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources).
Like Baiji, Shushuk population is decreasing very fast in recent times. Rapid industrialization, use of fertilizers for
agriculture, fishing nets all are putting a harsh hand on the survival of this river dolphin. The sole reason of still having
some hundreads in the Ganges is because the river is not used like the Yangtze as transportation for commercial
purposes. As road network is spreading in Bangladesh and India, roads are used as the main transport ways, helping
to keep the river water free from traffic.
Like Baiji, finless porpoise is another endangered species in Yangtze River and the number is thought to be only 400
in the wild the same for Baiji 20 years before.
The traditional Chinese Myth says Baiji is the reincarnation of a princess drowned by her family as she refused to marry
a man whom she did not love. Baiji is locally known as “Goddess of the Yangtze” and regards as a symbol of ‘Peace and
The princess drowned. Now it’s time for Baiji to be sacrificed for the cost of the development of civilization. The question is,
will we let it be?
Sources: Guardian, Wikipedia, Taipei Times
Yangtze River Dolphin Baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) and finless porpoise