The baiji or Jangtze river dolphin is considered the most endangered of all cetacean species. the numerous threats it faces are representative of those confronting all river dolphin species. Zoologist Mark Carwardine visited the region in 1989 to report on the animal's plight.
the Yangtze is the third largest river in the world. Known locally as the Chang Jian, or Long River, it cuts right through the heart of the country, stretching 6,300km (3,900 mls) from its source in western China to its mouth near Shanghai.
Certain parts of the river's natural landscape are overwhelmingly dramatic and relatively unspoilt, and tiny villages, terraced fields, spectacular canyons, striking limestone cliffs and beautiful countryside line its banks. But vast stretches are more typical of the ceaseless bustle of Chinese towns,lined with houses, docks, trading posts, enormous cranes and noisy factories.
Since there is no long-distance road transport in much of China, and only a thinly-spaced, overloaded railway system, the Yangtze forms a natural highway through the country. More than a sixth of all the country's exports travel along the river with the result that there is a constant stream of vessels plying up and down. There are rusty tramp steamers, container ships, giant ferries, passenger liners, sailing junks, barges and numerous tiny boats being rowed from bank to bank by oarsmen standing up in the traditional style.
This overcrowded river is the perilous home of what is probably the rarest cetacean in the world: the Yangtz river dolphin, or baiji as it is more commonly known in China.
This diminutive dolphin species was unknown to scientists in the rest of the world until a visiting American killed one in 1914 and sold it to the Smithsonian Institution. Although it turned out to be a new species and genus of river dolphin it received surprisingly little scientific attention until the 1970s.
The Chinese people, of course, have been aware of the baiji's existance for centuries and fishermen living along the banks of the Yangtze have many strange and interesting stories to tell about it. Some say that the baiji makes peculiar roaring sounds at night; others claim it can start a severe storm and is the bearer of bad omens. It is thought by many to be the reincarnation of a drowned princess, while some fishermen believe that ill fortune descends upon anyone who dares to molest it. Overall, the local beliefs and customs concerning the baiji are generally harmless and may even have helped to protect it in the past. But with the increasing human pressures of modern-day China, superstitions will not be enough to ensure the baiji's future survival.
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