The baiji, known in the English-speaking world as the Yangtze River Dolphin, is finally extinct. It is sad that a creature that shared our planet with us and our ancestors for the past twenty million years has disappeared. It is true that humans played a role in the extinction of this species, but do we really need to blame ourselves alone?
Lipotes vexillifer first appeared in the Chang Jiang river, also known as the Yangtze, around twenty million years ago. The earliest scientific survey of the baiji population was done in the 1950s, and the number was pegged at around 6000. Around 1960, China underwent what was termed by Mao and his men as the 'Great Leap Forward', which was the period when socialism was forced onto the common man, a precursor to the 'Cultural Revolution'. Until then, the baiji was a venerated symbol in Chinese culture. The 'Great Leap Forward' crushed symbolism, including that of the dolphin. Fishermen started hunting the baiji, and the population started dwindling. Later, during the rapid industrialization of China, effluents were pumped into the Yangtze, which further accelerated the decline of the baiji population, culminating in the extinction of the species.
But was the extinction of the Yangtze River Dolphin entirely due to human activity? As the statistics from the 1950s shows, the number of dolphins before the decline in population was as low as 6000. For a river which is over 6000 kilometres long, one dolphin per kilometer length of the river seems to be uncomfortably low. Comparatively, the elephant, which is categorized as an endangered species by the IUCN Red List, is around 500,000 in number. The baiji, for all we know, was probably on the way out of Nature's list of selected species.