Baiji by Lucy Campbell – courtesy of the artist
Chinese history stretches back thousands of years, with much of the modern nation’s heartland falling under the control of a single dynasty before the Romans even finished conquering Italy. In the ensuing millennia the Yangtze, Earth’s third-longest river, would become a major focal point of East Asia’s grandest civilisation.
In the days of Imperial China, the waters of what would come to be known as the “Long River” held a multitude of marvels. Amidst the ranks of the Yangtze’s endemic fish species were the high-fin loach, nicknamed an “ugly duckling in reverse” and the mighty Yangtze paddlefish, reaching lengths of over twelve feet. Besides the fish were other giants and oddities, including soft-shelled turtles weighing as much as a lion and diminutive finless porpoises.
Arguably the most celebrated of all the river’s residents was Lipotes vexillifer, the “Goddess of the Yangtze”. Commonly known as the baiji, this species of river dolphin occupies a special place in ancient Chinese mythology. The fable once told of the baiji is infused with human suffering and death, as indeed was these animals’ ultimate fate.
The story goes that a beautiful young girl lived on the banks of the Yangtze with her cruel stepfather. One day, he took the girl onto the river by boat, meaning to sell her at market. En route, he became intoxicated by her beauty, deciding to take advantage of her. The girl freed herself by plunging into the river, whereupon a storm sank her stepfather’s boat. Once the storm passed, a beautiful dolphin was seen swimming and taken to be the incarnation of the girl. The animal was dubbed the Goddess of the Yangtze: a symbol of peace, prosperity and protection.
Painting of a baiji, Geisler et al. via Wikimedia Commons
For millennia, thousands of these blue-and-cream cetaceans swam in the Yangtze beneath the sailboats of traders and fishermen. But nothing lasts forever, and two centuries of bloody upheaval would end Imperial China and the baiji alike. In 1793, a British diplomatic mission to the Chinese Emperor was haughtily dismissed as a rabble of barbarians. However the “barbarians” would return, with a strength born of their Industrial Revolution, sailing thousands of troops up the Yangtze into the heart of China. By the mid-nineteenth century, steam-powered Western gunboats patrolled the Emperor’s greatest waterway.
China’s national humiliation and brutal treatment by the West, and later the Japanese, triggered the overthrow both of the imperial regime and its republican successor. This second Chinese revolution, concluding in 1949, would have grave consequences indeed. Following decades of brutal war, the Communist leader Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. Mao sought to restore his ravaged homeland’s once paramount standing amongst nations. China would be forever changed.
In 1950, the lower Yangtze held around six thousand baiji, much the same number as when China’s first imperial dynasty was founded. In 1958 Mao initiated China’s “Great Leap Forward”. This attempt to create industrialised socialism in the People’s Republic was a cataclysmic disaster. Perhaps as many as fifty-five million Chinese died in the resulting famine. The Great Leap Forward also proved an ecological catastrophe. A massive nationwide furnace-building drive led to rampant deforestation to provide fuel, which in turn exacerbated desertification. Certain traditions were also denounced, including the venerated status of the baiji.
No longer protected by custom, the dolphins were made horribly vulnerable at a stroke. Against a backdrop of famine, they were hunted for their meat. A grisly cottage industry also emerged, with baiji skin being cut and stitched into handbags and gloves. Whilst the Great Leap Forward only lasted four appalling years, severe damage had been done. The Goddess of the Yangtze was in deep trouble.
China’s rapid population growth after the famine meant ever more mouths to feed. Fishing activity in the baiji’s home waters intensified, with motorised boats dragging thousands of hooks each behind them through the cloudy river. Baiji became entangled in this new fishing apparatus and drowned, with others scythed to death by propellers.
In 1979 China’s government officially declared the dolphins endangered. By now, maybe a tenth of their mid-century population remained. In the following decades, attempts were made to save the baiji, but time was already short and the odds were ever-mounting against the species’ survival.
A surfacing baiji, image public domain
In 2006, a six-week survey of the Yangtze by thirty researchers found no sign of the baiji. They were declared functionally extinct in December that year, since fewer were thought to survive than the continuation of the species required.
Research indicates that the loss of the baiji is of particular significance: it was the sole representative of the Lipotidae, an entire cetacean family. More than twenty million years of unique evolutionary history gave Earth the baiji. We took about one-millionth of that time to drive them to the brink of extinction.
Scientists’ despondency about the baiji is sadly well-placed. Almost a half-billion people inhabit the Yangtze drainage basin. The river itself is astoundingly polluted, fringed by over four hundred-thousand “chemical enterprises”, turning former baiji habitat into what PRC state media call a “pollution belt”. Unsurprisingly, many of the river’s other species are at risk of following the dolphins into oblivion.
The suffering of China’s people in the centuries since a newly-industrialised West first turned its sights on the vast Qing Empire has been mirrored by the suffering of its wildlife and ecosystems. Unfortunately, another sinister innovation of Mao’s now has environmental repercussions far beyond the People’s Republic: namely his promotion of “Traditional Chinese Medicine”. This highly-lucrative field is a now a major driver of species endangerment worldwide.
One poignant example of this endangerment is the vaquita, native to the Gulf of California. This child-sized porpoise may soon vanish due to insatiable Chinese demand for the swim bladders of the totoaba fish who share its habitat. Nearly all Earth’s vaquita have already drowned in the nets of Mexico’s totoaba fishery. It would be a grim irony indeed if two disparate cetacean species were lost in such quick succession, paying the ultimate price for China’s bitter struggle to reclaim its former glory.
A pair of vaquita, image public domain
Lucy Campbell’s works explore the worlds of lost, disappearing and mythical creatures. Her baiji painting was made as part of a shared project with storyteller Andreas Kornevall – read Andreas’ version of the ancient baiji myth, illustrated by Lucy, on his website.