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Chinese Dolphin Close to Extinction


A Yangtze River Dolphin in Captivity

May 16, 2003 The Yangtze River dolphin is now so rare that it faces extinction within a decade, according to a report published on Wednesday that sounds the alarm for the world's cetaceans.

There are probably only a few dozen of these baiji dolphins left, according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

It places the species (Lipotes vexillifer) in the same category as the vaquita, a porpoise (Phocoena sinus) that lives in the Gulf of California, of which probably only several hundred now survive.

Both are rated "critically endangered" on the IUCN's Red List, the most respected databank on global biodiversity.

Under this category, a species is believed to have suffered a fall of more than 80 percent over the past 10 years or three generations, whichever is longer.

There is a "very high risk" more than one in two that a species in this category will vanish in the wild within a decade.

"The claim that humans have not yet caused the extinction of any cetacean species is becoming increasingly tenuous," the IUCN warns.

Surveys in 1985 and 1986 estimated the baiji population to be around 300 animals. But between 1997 and 1999, only 21 to 23 dolphins were spotted, living in the main channel of the Yangtze.

Several cetacean species are placed in the "critically endangered" category.

They include the North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales, the fin whale and the blue whale, the biggest creature on the planet.

The list of threats to cetaceans is long, the IUCN said.

They start with industrialized trawling, which can indiscriminately scoop up small species on which many animals depend, and nylon drift netting, which causes a high mortality rate among dolphins and porpoises.

Then there is damage to habitat caused by coastal development, dam construction and pollution.

Hunting of some species, either for food or predator control, also remains a major source of concern.

"Long-standing concerns about the disturbance caused by ship noise, seismic operations, drilling and other acoustic inputs to the marine environment have expanded to encompass the likelihood that new types of military sonar can cause lethal trauma to deep-diving cetaceans," the report said.

"Exceptionally high levels of chemical contaminants in the tissues of cetaceans may be affecting the animals' immune and reproductive systems."

The report is the third and last of three to be written by the IUCN's Cetaceans Specialist Group in the past 15 years. It sets down 57 recommendations for helping to save these species by 2010.

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Name: Yangtze River Dolphin, aka Baiji (Lipotes vexillifer)

Primary Classification: Odontoceti (Toothed Whales)

Location: China's Chang Jiang (Yangtze) River and associated lakes and waterways.

Habitat: Wide, slow-moving rivers and lakes.

Diet: A variety of fish.

Size: Up to 8.25 ft in length and 350 lbs in weight.

Description: Blue-gray or brown above; white below; long, thin, slighly upturned beak; tiny eyes situated high on the head; rounded melon; flexible neck; triangular dorsal fin; broad, rounded flippers

Cool Facts: It is the rarest and most endangered cetacean in the world only a few dozen individuals remain.

Conservation Status: Critically Endangered

Major Threat(s): Overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, human traffic, noise pollution and poaching.

What Can I Do?: Visit the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society for information on how you can help.
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