Murky water, hazy sky and dull brown riverbanks. Strained eyes peering into the mist. Ears tuned electronically into the depths. And with each hour, each day that passes, a nagging question that grows louder: is this how a species ends after 20 million years on earth?
When they write the environmental history of early 21st-century China, the freshwater dolphin expedition now plying the Yangtze river may be seen as man's farewell to an animal it once worshipped. A team of the world's leading marine biologists is making a last-gasp search for the baiji, a dolphin that was revered as the goddess of Asia's mightiest river but is now probably the planet's most endangered mammal.
Environmentalists warn that more and more species are being threatened in China, where forests can be home to more varieties of life than all of the US and Canada combined.
The baiji expedition started out as a typically modern-day mission: a cascade of beer from the brewery sponsoring the launch, technical support from international research institutes and a shipfull of good intentions and high hopes. But more than halfway through the six-week expedition, the mood is grimmer as the participants contemplate the possibility that man may have killed off its first species of dolphin.
Spotters on the two boats have yet to glimpse a pale dorsal fin or hear the telltale trace of a sonar whistle, but the organizers refuse to give up. "The likelihood of the baiji being extinct in five to 10 years is 90 percent or more, but we must have hope and do everything possible," says August Pfluger, head of baiji.org, a Swiss-based group devoted to saving whales and dolphins.
Few people outside China have heard of the baiji, a light grey, long-snouted river dolphin that relies on sonar rather than its eyes to navigate through the murky Yangtze water. But even more than the panda, the demise of this mammal illustrates the sacrifices that the world's most populous country has made in its race to grow richer.
In the 1950s, there were thousands of baiji in the Yangtze. By 1994, the number fell below 100. This year, there has only been one, unconfirmed, sighting.
On board the Kekao-1 survey boat, it is not hard to see reasons for the decline. As commerce booms, the Yangtze has grown thick with container ships, coal barges and speed boats, whose hulls and propellers can run down or tear up the dolphins. Others have been blown up by bombs, electrocuted or snarled on 1,000m-long lines of hooks set by local fishermen who use unorthodox and illegal methods to boost catches.
Pollution is fouling their habitat. Near Huaneng, the acrid smoke billowing out of a paper factory and coal-fired power plant is so pungent that the crew grimace more than half a kilometer away. The factory discharges an unceasing torrent of filthy water directly into the river.
The completion of the Three Gorges dam has not helped. Although it is far upriver, the giant barrier has worsened a decline of the smaller fish on which the baiji feed and the shrinkage of the sand bars around which they once played.
last ditch rescue plan
Scientists hope to save the species by capturing and moving specimens to a nature reserve — the 21km-long oxbow lake at Tian'ezhou (天鵝州) — where they will be protected from river traffic and fishing.
Even with just a couple of dozen baiji, the team believes the population could recover. They point to Tian'ezhou's herd of several hundred Pere David's deer. The last 18 deer, which is indigenous to China, were taken to Woburn Abbey in England in the late 19th century and successfully bred and reintroduced to China.