Sighting test of "Yangtze River goddess" gives great hope to Chinese ecologists

The baiji, nicknamed the "goddess of the Yangtze River", is considered an extinct species, however, some observers claim to have sighted it last month.

In fact, more than a decade has passed since the baiji was declared "functionally extinct".

However, a recent image tries to show that the "goddess of the Yangtze River" still exists, awakening hopes in keeping this mammal alive thanks to the recovery of the ecological vitality of the longest waterway in Asia.

Many observers believe that this type of dolphin, the only one of its kind to inhabit fresh waters, is only found in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River.

Some environmental scientists have never stopped believing that somewhere in the immense area of ​​the third longest river, hiding from stubborn human activity survive a few Baiji who fight every day for their survival.

Earlier this month, the China Foundation for the Conservation of Biodiversity and Green Development published a photograph of a creature that resembles a baiji. The photo was taken in April on a section of the Yangtze River, near Wuhu, Anhui Province.

Previously, two fishermen's reports had already been distributed, which declared a group containing adult and juvenile specimens.

A growing optimism

The China Foundation for the Conservation of Biodiversity and Green Development confirmed that several researchers who know this species well have confirmed that the creature in the photo is a baiji.

"Although the baiji is very likely to have been drastically reduced in the wild, there are chances that a few will still survive in those waters," said Wang Kexiong, a professor at the Institute of Hydrobiology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan Province. from Hubei.

"But without performing other tests of rigor, it is unwise to identify as a baiji the creature that appears in the photograph," the Institute said. However, other experts warn that it is too early to label the baiji as an "extinct" species.

"The test goes beyond a photo," says Fei, director of the baiji program of the China Foundation for the Conservation of Biodiversity and Green Development.

For three years, this institution has organized observation trips in the hope of spotting freshwater dolphins in the Yangtze. In May of last year, several expedition members claimed to have sighted the mammal.

"Baiji does not live in isolation," said Li Xinyuan, researcher and recovery activist for the baiji, who was present when the picture was taken last month and described the meeting as "very exciting."

"For two days in a row our companions witnessed a baiji, but escaped before obtaining the snapshot." On the third day, photographer Jiao Shaowen decided to use a camera lens instead of binoculars to observe the surface of the water, so he was able to to take the picture when the baiji emerged, "says Li, who in the 1980s commanded a cabinet program for the conservation of mammals.

He thinks that if the animal detected is really a baiji, it is very likely that there are others swimming nearby.

"Thanks to state protection, it is clear that the water quality of the Yangtze and the ecosystem have improved in recent years," Li acknowledged.

He added that many Chinese environmentalists admit that if the level of environmental quality in the region continues to improve, there is a good chance that the Baiji will reappear.

Necessary resources

Hua Yuanyu, one of the scientists who participated in the 1980 census, advises that "to protect the possibility that the Baiji dolphins survive, emergency actions must be taken using the best resources, specialists and technology in the country."

"River transport along the Yangtze River should be properly managed to reduce the noise that has seriously affected the lives of these dolphins that are oriented by their sonar," said the veteran professor at the Institute of Life Sciences of the Nanjing Normal University. Jiangsu province.

Hua also condemned destructive fishing methods such as electro-fishing, gillnets and the dynamic wall, a technique that equips the nets with "knocking" devices to scare the fish out of hiding.

"These practices must be strictly prohibited and any violation must be punished severely in order to protect the baiji and its food chain," Hua said.

"Baiji is a mammal that uses the lungs to breathe in. If they are affected by an electric shock, they can become unconscious and drown," said Hua, pointing out the danger of electro-fishing.

And he urged to train local fishermen in law enforcement and in better environmental education, so that they become efficient protectors of the ecosystem.

"The protection of the Yangtze must not only include the quality of its water, but also the banks and the wetland must be taken into account throughout its trajectory because the ecosystem functions as an indivisible whole," Hua recalled.

The prominent professor also suggests that the protection zone of the Baiji should be expanded to include the habitat of the possible last baiji of Wuhu.

"I am optimistic, if the environment continues to improve, the baiji will reappear," adds Hua, creator of the sonar guidance method to observe and infer the size and distribution of the Baiji population in 1986.

In the mid-1980s it is estimated that there were about 300 Baiji divided into 42 groups.

Hua's hypothesis is that these intelligent mammals have hidden themselves from human activity and industrial waste and live in calm waters that are difficult to access.

The ecological restoration

It is estimated that the baiji lived on the Yangtze River for 20 million years.

However, in recent decades the peaceful existence of the Baiji was shattered by the boom in the fishing industry and river transport.

The ancestors considered this mammal as a goddess who protected the fishermen and sailors along the 6,380 kilometers of waterway that originates in Qinghai Province and flows into the East China Sea of ​​Shanghai.

The last Baiji that lived in captivity died in 2002. After an international expedition carried out at the end of 2006, no proof of its existence could be found. The following year the species was declared "functionally extinct".

In the Red List of Endangered Species of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the baiji is defined as "critically endangered and already probably extinct".

Due to the absence of the "Yangtze River Goddess", China has been making great efforts to restore the ecosystem of the vital river.

The construction of an ecological civilization has already been defined in the Constitution of the Republic as a national development objective.

As a result, scientific studies have confirmed an increase in the number of black porpoise and other mammals of the Yangtze River.

The supposed reappearance of the baiji is further evidence of the ecological improvement of the Yangtze, says Hua.

For his part, Professor Wang, of the Institute of Hydrobiology of Wuhan, insists that there is still a long way to go in protecting and restoring the natural habitats of the river for species such as the black porpoise.

"But the current development strategy is in the right direction," he said.

"Monitoring, protecting, revitalizing and restoring the ecology and natural habitats of the Yangtze River should be prioritized tasks for the next 50 years," Wang concluded.

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