Last chance for world’s most endangered mammal
Wednesday 28 June 2006
One of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL)’s key scientists, today unveils the plans for a crucial conservation project to save the world’s most endangered mammal, the Yangtze River dolphin. The dolphin, commonly known as the baiji, is the only living member of an entire family of aquatic mammals and is only distantly related to other dolphin species, but fewer than fifty individuals are believed to survive today. Writing in the journal Oryx, Dr Sam Turvey describes the measures that must now be undertaken if the world is to have any chance of saving this enchanting, but critically endangered animal.
The Yangtze River dolphin is only found in China’s Yangtze River system, and its numbers have plummeted over the past few decades as a result of severe habitat degradation, overfishing, collisions with boats, and construction of dams such as the Three Gorges Dam. As it is highly unlikely that conditions in the Yangtze will improve in the foreseeable future, plans have now been made to establish a closely monitored breeding population of dolphins in the Tian-e-Zhou National Baiji Reserve, a 21 km oxbow lake adjacent to the Yangtze in Hubei Province.
An Emergency Implementation Plan to initiate this crucial recovery programme has been developed by ZSL following a crisis meeting in San Diego attended by representatives from a range of Chinese and international organisations. The plan outlines how the few remaining dolphins can be captured and translocated to the Tian-e-Zhou National Baiji Reserve, and how a breeding population can be managed. This recovery programme will be managed by ZSL together with Chinese and international partners. ZSL is now seeking urgent funds to allow the dolphin recovery programme to be put into action. In this quarter’s Oryx, Dr Turvey, an expert in mammal extinction and conservation, describes these plans and calls for action.
Dr Turvey stated “This really is the last chance that we have to save one of the world’s most evolutionarily distinct and unusual animals, which the Chinese government has described as a national treasure of the highest order. We have successfully developed an emergency recovery programme for the species, but it is essential that we now raise the funding necessary to implement the programme and act immediately. If we cannot do this, the baiji is certain to join the long and tragic list of species already driven to extinction by human activity. We have to act now if we want to save the species.”
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Notes to editors
- The Institute of Zoology (IoZ) is the research division of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). It is a government-funded research institute specialising in scientific issues relevant to the conservation of animal species and their habitats.
- Founded in 1826, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) is an international scientific, conservation and educational charity: our key role is the conservation of animals and their habitats. ZSL owns and operates London Zoo and Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, carries out scientific research at the Institute of Zoology and is actively involved in field conservation in over 40 countries worldwide. www.zsl.org
- The Yangtze River dolphin or baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) is the only living member of the Lipotidae, an ancient mammal family thought to have separated from other cetaceans (marine mammals including whales, dolphins and porpoises) 20-40 million years ago.
- The baiji is a white freshwater dolphin with a very long, narrow beak and low dorsal fin. It tends to live in groups of three or four and feeds on freshwater fish. It has a special place in Chinese culture, as it was once revered as a river goddess or the reincarnation of a drowned princess.
- The species is listed as Critically Endangered, the highest category of threat status, on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Surveys in the late 1990s produced a count of just 17 individuals, and fewer than 50 individuals probably survive today. The population has been decreasing for several decades, and increasing human activity throughout the Yangzte region is continuing to impact the remnant population.
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