Flagship Down: An Analysis of Factors that Contributed to the Extinction of the Chinese River Dolphin, the Baiji

Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

M.S. Marine Biology

First Advisor

Edward Keith

Second Advisor

Charles Messing


One of the four classical river dolphin species, the baiji (Lipotes vexillifer), was declared extinct in 2007, after a survey failed to observe any individuals along a stretch of the Yangtze River, the animal’s only habitat. Despite its status as an important and endangered species of concern for conservation, the loss of this endemic species of China occurred swiftly after intervention measures and is the first case of cetacean extinction by incidental mortality. A thorough overview of the dolphin’s role in Chinese folklore and history, as well as early research, contributes to the understanding of why necessary protection strategies were delayed. The failings of the various intervention measures, including captivity strategies, in situ reserves, and ex situ reserves, are all explained in relation to the timeline of the species’ deterioration. While bycatch is considered the primary factor that contributed to the baiji’s decline, this analysis also examines direct and indirect influences, including environmental degradation and anthropogenic impacts, a lack of scientific data, miscommunication, political and scientific inefficacy, as well as cultural and historical pressures. Many of these impacts are similar in affecting the world’s remaining small cetaceans, especially those in riverine habitats, and it is therefore imperative to understand and overcome the various errors and obstacles that arise for any similar conservation effort. Therefore, suggestions promulgated after lessons learned from the baiji recovery program failure are proposed within a conservation biology framework, so that the ‘flagship’ species of conservation did not disappear in vain.

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