The Yangtze river dolphin's scientific name, lipotes vexillifer, is derived from the Greek word “leipo,” meaning “one left behind.” Originally the name referred to its limited range, but it may now refer to its fate.
The Chinese government declared the species a National Treasure in 1975, but conservation efforts along one of the world’s busiest waterways met with little success because of continual boat traffic, fishing and industrial development and pollution. A December 2006 range-wide survey failed to find any individuals, and the Yangtze river dolphin is now feared to be extinct.
Often referred to by its Chinese name, Baiji, the Yangtze river dolphin remains an enigmatic creature as few specimens have ever been examined. It was difficult to study in the wild, being both rare and shy, and its only habitat was in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze river in China, primarily where tributaries meet the river. It was one of two cetaceans in its range, along with the finless porpoise.
The dolphins were marked with gray uppers and sides, a long narrow beak, a roughly human-sized body and a low triangular dorsal fin. Females grew to more than 8 feet in length and over 350 pounds in weight. Their blow sounded like a high-pitched sneeze, although it was seldom heard because the dolphins were nearly impossible to observe by boat, diving and reversing directions when approached.
The fate of the Baiji is a solemn reminder of the importance of the planet's river systems. Scientists hope that the lessons learned on the Yangtze can help other large rivers and the creatures, such at the Amazon river dolphin, that rely on them.May 07, 2012