“The Peiji dolphin, or the Yangtze river dolphin, was this unique and beautiful creature – there was nothing quite like it,” said British zoologist and conservationist Samuel Turvey, who spent more than two decades in China trying to track down the animal.
“It’s been around for tens of millions of years and was in its own mammal family. There are other river dolphins in the world, but this one was completely different, so it has nothing to do with anything else,” Turvy said. “Its demise was more than a tragedy for other species – it was a massive loss of river diversity in terms of how unique they were and left huge holes in the ecosystem.”
Experts have expressed grave concern that rare local animal and plant species in the Yangtze may suffer a fate similar to that of the Baiji River dolphin as exacerbated climate change and harsh weather conditions damage Asia’s longest river.
Experts say that the environmental impact that climate change and accompanying extreme weather events have had on hundreds of protected and threatened species of wildlife and plants living in and around the river is understated.
“The Yangtze River is one of the world’s most ecologically important rivers for biodiversity and freshwater ecosystems – and we continue to discover new species annually,” said conservation ecologist Hua Fangyuan, associate professor at Peking University.
“Many (known) and unknown small fish and other aquatic species are probably facing the threat of extinction silently and we simply don’t know enough.
Hundreds of species are in danger
Over the years, conservationists and scientists have identified and documented hundreds of species of wild animals and plants indigenous to the Yangtze River.
Among them are the pigs of the Yangtze River, which look like baiji, Facing extinction due to human activity and habitat loss, endangered reptiles such as the Chinese alligator and the Yangtze giant soft-shell turtle – believed to be the largest living species of freshwater turtles in the world.
Experts have also noted a sharp decline in many species of local freshwater fish, such as the now-extinct Chinese sturgeon.
The most endangered is the Chinese giant salamander, one of the largest amphibians in the world. Zoologist Turvi said wild populations have been shattered, and the species is “on the verge of extinction.”
“Despite being a protected species, Chinese giant salamanders are under greater threat from climate change – rising global temperatures and drought certainly won’t work when they are already so vulnerable,” Turvy said.
“They have long faced threats such as poaching, habitat loss and pollution, but when you add climate change to the mix, their chances of survival become very slim,” he added.
“They can only live in freshwater environments and declining water levels will inevitably put pressure on their numbers across China.”
problem for the world
Conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) say the plight of the Yangtze River is of great concern not only to the Chinese people and government, but also to the broader international community.
“Rivers around the world, from Europe to the United States, have declined to historically low flow levels that are negatively affecting ecosystems,” said chief scientist Jeff Oberman.
“Reduced river flow and warmer Yangtze waters pose a threat to freshwater species and increase pressure on already endangered animals such as the Yangtze River’s remaining hogs and Chinese crocodiles left in the wild. Lower river levels also affect the health of (nearby) lakes and wetlands, which are vital for millions of migratory birds along the East Asian flight path.
“The Yangtze River is the longest river in China and (all of) Asia, and has long been the cradle of civilization. Despite severe conservation threats and losses over the years, there is still much biodiversity to preserve in and along the Yangtze.”
Few would deny the significance and symbolism of the Yangtze River. But experts say unless action is taken – and soon – more species will follow the fate of the baiji and the Chinese paddlefish.
British zoologist Turvy warned of the kind of complacency that allowed Peggy to disappear.
“The Yangtze River has been a jewel in Asia’s crown. There is still a lot of biodiversity to fight for and we must not give up hope of saving species such as giant salamanders, river reptiles and others,” Turvi said.
“If there is anything we can learn from the death of the Yangtze River dolphin, it is that extinction lasts forever and we cannot take it seriously.”