Conservationist claims he saw 'extinct' Chinese baiji dolphin

Conservationist claims he saw 'extinct' Chinese baiji dolphin

Ten years ago, China's rare freshwater dolphin, known as the 'goddess of the Yangtze', was declared extinct. But a group of amateur conservationists say they spotted the rare river mammal last week, though it can't be confirmed.

Small, white and nearly blind, the baiji was declared "functionally extinct" in 2006 after a six-week search of the Yangtze River - the longest river in Asia - failed to find any of them.

The term means while there could be some of the dolphins left in the river, the number is so small they won't have a chance to survive.

But now, a group of Chinese conservationists claim they caught a glimpse of the dolphin after a week-long expedition near the city of Wuhu in Anhui province which started on September 30.

Expedition leader Song Qi told The Guardian he saw a "white dot" break the river's surface around 9:20am on October 4, followed shortly by a "white light" from the water which came up from the depths.

He saw the animal a third and final time swimming toward the eastern bank of the river.

Song told government-backed news agency Sixth Tone the group didn't capture conclusive evidence of the animal's existence because they camera they recorded with was a wide angle so wasn't able to film it in detail.

Normally a publisher in Beijing by day, Song admitted he wasn't an expert on the baiji and couldn't be completely sure it was even the dolphin.

However, he says fishermen in the area who'd also seen the dolphin were "100 percent certain" it was a baiji.

Song says he hoped the possible sighting, though unconfirmed, would renew interest in saving the species. 

Biologist and senior research fellow at the Zoological Society of London, Samuel Turvey, who was on the 2006 expedition and wrote a book about the baiji's predicament, told The Guardian he was sceptical about the latest supposed sighting.

"Extreme claims for the possible survival of probably extinct species require robust proof, and while I would deeply love there to be strong evidence that the baiji is not extinct, this isn't it."

One of the last confirmed sightings of the baiji was in 2007, just months after it was declared functionally extinct.

The dolphin's numbers have dwindled over the past decades from an estimated 400 in the late 1980s to less than 100 in the mid-1990s.

Their demise has been blamed on China's extreme growth and development which has severely polluted the Yangtze as well as over-fishing.