By Heather Chen, CNN
They called her the “Goddess of the Yangtze” – a creature so rare that she was believed to bring fortune and protection to local fishermen and anyone lucky enough to spot her.
But overfishing and human activity drove it to the brink of extinction and it hasn’t been seen for decades.
“The baiji, or Yangtze River dolphin, was this unique and magnificent creature – there was nothing quite like it,” said Samuel Turvey, a British zoologist and conservationist who has spent more than two decades in China. trying to find the animal.
“It existed for tens of millions of years and belonged to its own family of mammals. There are other river dolphins in the world, but this one was very different, so unrelated to anything d ‘other,” said Turvey. “Its disappearance was more than just a tragedy of species – it was a huge loss of river diversity in terms of uniqueness and left huge holes in the ecosystem.”
Experts have expressed grave concern that other rare animal and plant species native to the Yangtze may suffer the same fate as the baiji river dolphin as worsening climate change and extreme weather conditions take their toll on the longest river in Asia.
With below-average rainfall since July, its water levels have plunged to record lows of 50% of their normal levels for this time of year, expose fissured riverbeds and even developer submerged islands.
The drought has already had a devastating effect on China’s most important river, which stretches about 6,300 kilometers (3,900 miles) from the Tibetan Plateau to the East China Sea near Shanghai and provides water, food, transportation and hydroelectric power to more than 400 million people.
The human impact has been enormous. Factories have been closed conserve electricity and the water supply of tens of thousands of people has been affected.
Less talked about is the environmental impact that climate change and associated extreme weather events have had on the hundreds of protected and endangered wildlife and plant species living in and around the river, experts say.
“The Yangtze is one of the world’s most ecologically critical rivers for biodiversity and freshwater ecosystems – and we are still discovering new species every year,” said conservation ecologist Hua Fangyuan, assistant professor at Peking University.
“Many little (known) and unknown fish and other aquatic species are most likely facing silent extinction risks and we just don’t know enough.”
Hundreds of species at risk
Over the years, conservationists and scientists have identified and documented hundreds of wild animal and plant species native to the Yangtze.
Among them, the finless Yangtze porpoise which, similar to the baiji, faces extinction due to human activity and habitat loss, and critically endangered reptiles like the Chinese alligator and the Yangtze giant softshell turtle – considered the largest living species freshwater turtle in the world.
Experts have also noticed a drastic decline in many native freshwater fish species, such as the now extinct paddlefish and Chinese sturgeon.
The Chinese giant salamander, one of the largest amphibians in the world, is at high risk. Wild populations have crashed, said zoologist Turvey, and the species is “now on the brink of extinction”.
“Despite being a protected species, Chinese giant salamanders are most at risk from climate change – rising global temperatures and droughts will certainly do them no good when they are already extremely vulnerable,” Turvey 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 dramatically slim,” he added.
“They can only live in freshwater environments and lower water levels would inevitably put greater pressure on their numbers across China.”
A problem for the world
Nature conservation groups like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) say the fate of the Yangtze is a major concern not just for the Chinese people and government, but also for the wider international community.
“Rivers around the world, from Europe to the United States, have dropped to historically low levels of flow that are negatively impacting ecosystems,” said its lead scientist Jeff Opperman.
“Reduced river flow and the warmer waters of the Yangtze are threatening freshwater species and increasing pressure on already critically endangered animals like Yangtze finless porpoises and Chinese alligators left behind. ‘wild state. Falling river levels are also impacting the health of (nearby) lakes and wetlands, which are vital to millions of migratory birds along the East Asian Flyway.
Hua, the conservation ecologist, said greater public awareness and greater efforts were needed to help the great shrinking Chinese river. “Humans depend on nature for their survival, period. This is a lesson for any civilization,” she said.
“The Yangtze is the longest river in China and (all) Asia and has long been a cradle of civilization. Despite serious conservation threats and losses over the years, there is still a lot of biodiversity to be conserved in and along the Yangtze.
Few would deny the significance and symbolism of the Yangtze. But experts say unless action is taken – and soon – more species will follow the fate of baiji and Chinese paddlefish.
Turvey, the British zoologist, warned of the kind of complacency that allowed the baiji to go extinct.
“The Yangtze was a jewel in the Asian crown. There is still so much biodiversity to defend and we must not give up hope of saving species like giant salamanders, river reptiles and others,” said Turvey.
“If there’s anything we can learn from the death of the Yangtze River dolphin, it’s that extinction is eternal and we can’t afford to take it lightly.”
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