Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Goodbye to the Baiji Dolphin

This morning, with great sadness, I read in a CNN article that the Yangtze River Dolphin is probably extinct. I've pasted below excerpts (unfortunately sacrificing a lot of the humor for space purposes) from Douglas Adams' Last Chance to See, his only non-fiction book, and, in my opinion, his best work.

Adams traveled around the world with naturalist Mark Carwardine to see some of the most endangered species on the planet. His account of trying to see the Baiji dolphin is both moving and funny. If you like it, I highly recommend you buy the book, which is far funnier than what is below.

* * *

Travelling in China I began to find that it was the sounds I was hearing that confused and disoriented me most.

It occurred to me, as we tried to find a table in one of the more muffled corners of the bar, that the dolphins we had come to look for must be suffering from the same kind of problem. Their senses must be completely overwhelmed and confused.

To begin with, the baiji dolphin is half-blind.

The reason for this is that there is nothing to see in the Yangtze. The water is so muddy now that visibility is not much more than a few centimetres, and as a result the baiji's eyes have atrophied through disuse.

Curiously enough, it is often possible to tell something about the changes that have occurred during an animal's evolution from the way in which its foetus develops. It's a sort of action replay.

The baiji's eyes, feeble as they are, are placed quite high up on its head to make the most of the only light that ever reaches them, i.e. from directly above.

Most other dolphins have their eyes much lower down the sides of their heads, from where they can see all around them, and below; and this is exactly where you will find the eyes on a young baiji foetus.

As the foetus grows, however, its eyes gradually migrate up the sides of its head, and the muscles which would normally pull the eyeball downwards don't even bother to develop. You can't see anything downwards.

It may be, therefore, that the entire history of soil erosion into the Yangtze can be charted in the movement of a single baiji foetus's eyes. (It may also be that the baiji arrived into an already turbid Yangtze from somewhere else and just adapted to its new environment; we don't know. Either way, the Yangtze has become very much more muddy during the history of the baiji species, mostly because of human activity.)

As a consequence, the baiji had to use a different sense to find its way around. It relies on sound. It has incredibly acute hearing, and 'sees' by echolocation, emitting sequences of tiny clicks and listening for the echoes. It also communicates with other baijis by making whistling noises.

Since man invented the engine, the baiji's river world must have become a complete nightmare.

China has a pretty poor road system. It has railways, but they don't go everywhere, so the Yangtze (which in China is called the Chang Jiang, or 'Long River') is the country's main highway. It's crammed.with boats the whole time, and always has been – but they used to be sailing boats. Now the river is constantly churned up by the engines of rusty old tramp steamers, container ships, giant ferries, passenger liners and barges.

I said to Mark, 'It must be continuous bedlam under the water.'


'I said, it's hard enough for us to talk in here with this band going on, but it must be continuous bedlam under the water.'

`Is that what you've been sitting here thinking all this time?


`I thought you'd been quiet.'

'I was trying to imagine what it would be like to be a blind man trying to live in a discotheque. Or several competing discotheques.'

`Well, it's worse than that, isn't it? Mark said. 'Dolphins rely on sound to see with.'

'All right, so it would be like a deaf man living in a discotheque.'


'All the stroboscopic lights and flares and mirrors and lasers and things. Constantly confusing information. After a day or two you'd become completely bewildered and disoriented and start to fall over the furniture.'

`Well, that's exactly what's happening, in fact. The dolphins are continually being hit by boats or mangled in their propellers or tangled in fishermen's nets. A dolphin's echolocation is usually good enough for it to find a small ring on the sea bed, so things must be pretty serious if it can't tell that it's about to be brained by a boat.

`Then, of course, there's all the sewage, the chemical and industrial waste and artificial fertiliser that's being washed into the Yangtze, poisoning the water and poisoning the fish.'

`So,' I said, 'what do you do if you are either half-blind, or half-deaf, living in a discotheque with a stroboscopic light show, where the sewers are overflowing, the ceiling and the fans keep crashing on your head and the food is bad?'

'I think I'd complain to the management.'

'They can't.'

'No. They have to wait for the management to notice.'


The sound we heard wasn't exactly what I had expected. Water is a very good medium for the propagation of sound and I had expected to hear clearly the heavy, pounding reverberations of each of the boats that had gone thundering by us as we stood on the deck. But water transmits sound even better than that, and what we were hearing was everything that was happening in the Yangtze for many, many miles around, jumbled cacophonously together.

Instead of hearing the roar of each individual ship's propeller, what we heard was a sustained shrieking blast of pure white noise, in which nothing could be distinguished at all.


Professor Zhou welcomed us to China, was surprised and delighted that we had come all this way to see the dolphins, said that he would do everything he possibly could to help us, but didn't think it would do us any good. Things are difficult in China, he confided. He promised to try and phone the people at the dolphin conservation project in Tongling to warn them that we were coming, but didn't hold out much hope because he'd been trying to get through to them on his own account for weeks.

He said that, yes, we were right. The noise in the Yangtze was a major problem for the dolphins, and severely interfered with their echolocation. The dolphins' habit had always been, when they heard a boat, to make a long dive, change direction underwater, swim under the boat and surface behind it. Now, when they are under the boat, they get confused and surface too soon, right under the propellers.

These things had all happened very suddenly, he said. The Yangtze had remained unspoilt for millions of years, but over the last few years had changed very dramatically, and the dolphin had no habit of adaptation.

The very existence of the dolphin had not been known of until relatively recently. Fishermen had always known of them, but fishermen did not often talk to zoologists, and there had been a recent painful period in China's history, of course, when nobody talked to scientists of any kind, merely denounced them to the Party for wearing glasses.

The dolphin was first discovered, in Dong Ting Lake, not in the Yangtze, in 1914 when a visiting American killed one and took it back to the Smithsonian. It was obviously a new species and genus of river dolphin, but little further interest was taken in it.

Then, in the late fifties, Professor Zhou returned from a field trip studying birds, to find an unlabelled skeleton waiting for him. It was the same species of dolphin, but this had been discovered, not in Dong Ting Lake, where they no longer existed, but in the river near Nanjing.

He interviewed some local fishermen who said they did see them from time to time. Any that were accidentally caught were sold for food. The ones that got caught in the fishing lines had a bad time of it, because the lines the fishermen traditionally use along the banks of the Yangtze are baited with hundreds of large, bare hooks.

Some studies were carried out around Nanjing, but for a while the Cultural Revolution put a stop to all that. Research picked up again in the seventies, but the difficulties of communication within China were such that research was only local, and no one really had a feel for exactly how rare the animal was, or what kind of predicament it was in.

That all changed in 1984.

Some peasants found a baiji stranded in the shallows near Tongling, further upriver. They reported it to the Agricultural Commission of the Tongling Municipal Government, who took an interest and sent someone along to take a look at it.

This immediately began to flush out a whole lot of stuff.

All sorts of people were suddenly popping up and saying that they had also seen a dolphin hit by a boat or caught in a net or washed up in a bloody mess somewhere.

The picture that emerged from putting all these hitherto isolated incidents together was an alarming one. It was suddenly horribly apparent that this dolphin was not merely rare, it was in mortal danger.

Professor Zhou was brought along from Nanjing to assess what should be done. Here the story took an unusual and dramatic turn, because once he had assessed what should be done… the people of Tongling did it.

Within months a huge project was set up. to build a dolphin protection reserve within the Yangtze itself, and now, five years later, it is almost complete.

`You should go to see it,' said Professor Zhou. `It is very good. I will try my best to phone them to prepare for your arrival, so you may rest… what is the word?

I said that rest sounded fine to me. I was all for some rest.


A day passed before, with the aid of Professor Zhou's letter, we were able to find an English-speaking guide and organise a small boat to do what we had come to do: go out on to the Yangtze River and look for baiji dolphins ourselves.

We were by this time two or three days behind the schedule we had originally planned, and had to leave the following morning on a ferry to Wuhan. We had therefore only a few hours in which to try and see one of the rarest aquatic mammals in the world in a river in which it would be hard to see your hand in front of your face.

Our small boat chugged away from a small, crowded wharf and out on to a wide extent of the dirty brown river. We asked Mr Ho, our guide, what he thought our chances of success were.

He shrugged.

`You see there are only two hundred baiji in two thousand kilometres. And the Yangtze is very wide. Not good, I think.'

We chugged along for quite some time, making our way gradually towards the opposite bank, about two kilometres away. The water was shallower there, which meant that there was less boat traffic. The dolphins also tend to keep close to the banks for the same reason, which means they are more likely to get snared in the fishing nets, of which we passed several, hung from bamboo frames extending from the banks. Fish populations are declining in the Yangtze and, with all the noise, the dolphins have greater difficulty in `seeing' the fish that there are. I guessed that a net full of fish might well lure a dolphin into danger.,

We reached a relatively quiet spot near the bank, and the captain turned off the engine.

Mr Ho explained that this was a good place to wait, maybe. Dolphins had been seen there recently. He said that that might be a good thing, or it might not. Either they would be here because they had been recently, or they would not be here because they had been recently. This seemed.comfortably to cover all the options, so we sat quietly to wait.

The vastness of the Yangtze becomes very apparent when you try and keep a careful watch on it. Which bit of it? Where? It stretched endlessly ahead of us, behind us and to one side. There was a breeze blowing, ruffling and chopping up the surface, and after just a few minutes of watching, your eyes begin to wobble. Every momentary black shadow of a dancing wave looks for an instant like what you want it to look like, and I did not even have a good mental picture of what to look for.

`Do you know how long they surface for? I asked Mark.



`It isn't good news. The dolphin's melon, or forehead, breaks the surface first, as it blows, then its small dorsal fin comes up, and then it plunges down again.'

`How long does that take?'

`Less than a second.'

`Oh.' I digested this. `I don't think we're going to see one, are we?'

Mark looked depressed. With a sigh he opened a bottle of baiji beer, and took a rather complicated swig at it, so as not to take his eyes off the water.

`Well, we might at least see a finless porpoise,' he said.

`They're not as rare as the dolphins, are they?'

`Well, they're certainly endangered in the Yangtze. There are thought to be about four hundred of them. They're having the same problems here, but you'll also find them in the coastal waters off China and as far west as Pakistan, so they're not in such absolute danger as a species. They can see much better than the baiji, which suggests that they're probably relative newcomers. Look! There's one! Finless porpoise!'

I was just in time to see a black shape fall back in the water and disappear. It was gone.

'Finless porpoise!' Mr Ho called out to us. `You see?

`We saw, thanks!' said Mark.

`How did you know it was a finless porpoise? I asked, quite impressed by this.

`Well, two things, really. First, we could actually see it. It came right up out of the water. Finless porpoises do that. The baiji doesn't.'

'You mean, if you can actually get to see it, it must be a finless porpoise.'

'More or less.'

`What's the other reason?

'Well, it hadn't got a fin.'

An hour drifted by. A couple of hundred yards from us big cargo boats and barges growled up the river. A slick of oil drifted past. Behind us the fish nets fluttered in the wind. I thought to myself that the words 'endangered species' had become a phrase which had lost any vivid meaning. We hear it too often to be able to react to it afresh.

As I watched the wind ruffling over the bilious surface of the Yangtze I realised with the vividness of shock, that somewhere beneath or around me there were intelligent animals whose perceptive universe we could scarcely begin to imagine, living in a seething, poisoned, deafening world, and that their lives were probably passed in continual bewilderment, hunger, pain and fear.

We did not manage to see a dolphin in the wild. We knew that we would at least be able to see the only one that is held in captivity, in the Hydrobiology Institute in Wuhan, but nevertheless we were depressed and disappointed when we arrived back at our hotel in the early evening.


They explained to us that the dolphin reserve was what they called a `semi-nature reserve.' Its purpose was to constrain the animals within a protected area without taking them out of their natural environment.

A little upstream of Tongling, opposite the town of Datong, there is an elbow-shaped bend in the river. In the crook of the elbow lie two triangular islands, between which runs a channel of water. The channel is about one and a half kilometres long, five metres deep, and between forty and two hundred metres wide, and this channel will be the dolphins' semi-nature reserve.

Fences of bamboo and metal are being constructed at either end of the channel, through which water from the main river flows continuously. A huge amount of remodelling and construction work is being done to make this possible. A large artificial hospital and holding pools are being built on one of the islands to hold injured or newly captured dolphins. A fish farm is being built on the other to feed them.

The scale of the project is enormous.

It is very, very expensive, the committee said, solemnly, and they can't even be sure that it will work. But they have to try. The baiji, they explained, is very important to them and it is their duty to protect it.

Mark asked them how on earth they raised the money to do it. It had all been put into operation in an extraordinarily short time.

Yes, they said, we have had to work very, very fast.

They had raised money from many sources. A substantial amount came from the central government, and more again from local government. Then there were many donations from local people and businesses.

They had also, they said a little hesitantly, gone into the business of public relations, and they would welcome our comments on this. Chinese knew little of such matters, but we, as Westerners, must surely be experts.

First, they said, they had persuaded the local brewery to use the baiji as their trademark. Had we tried Baiji Beer? It was of a good quality, now much respected in all of China. Then others had followed. The committee had entered into…

Here there was a bit of a vocabulary problem, which necessitated a little discussion with the interpreter before the right phrase at last emerged.

They had entered into licensing agreements. Local businesses had put money into the project, in return for which they were licensed to use the baiji. symbol, which in turn made good publicity for the baiji dolphin.

So now there was not only Baiji Beer, there was also the Baiji Hotel, Baiji shoes, Baiji Cola, Baiji computerised weighing scales, Baiji toilet paper, Baiji phosphorus fertiliser, and Baiji Bentonite.

Bentonite was a new one on me, and I asked them what it was.

They explained that Bentonite was a mining product used in the production of toothpaste, iron and steel casting, and also as an additive for pig food. Baiji Bentonite was a very successful product. Did we, as experts, think that this public relations was good?

We said it was absolutely astonishing, and congratulated them.

They were very gratified to know this, they said, from Western experts in such matters.

We felt more than a little abashed at these encomiums. It was very hard to imagine anywhere in the Western world that would be capable of responding with such prodigious speed, imagination and communal determination to such a problem. Although the committee told us that they hoped that, since Tongling had recently been declared an open city to visitors for the first time, the dolphins and the semi-nature reserve might bring tourists and tourist money to the area, it was very clear that this was not the primary impulse.

At the end they said, 'The residents in the area gain some profit – that's natural – but we have more profound plans, that is to protect the dolphin as a species, not to let it become extinct in our generation. Its protection is our duty. As we know that only two hundred pieces of this animal survive it may go extinct if we don't take measures to prevent it, and if that happens we will feel guilty for our descendants and later generations.'

We left the room feeling, for the first time in China, uplifted. It seemed that, for all the stilted and awkward formality of the meeting, we had had our first and only real glimpse of the Chinese mind. They took it as their natural duty to protect this animal, both for its own sake and for that of the future world. It was the first time we had been able to see beyond our own assumptions and have some insight into theirs.