China lost the Yangtze river dolphin. Climate change comes next for other species

“The Baiji, or Yangtze River dolphin, was this unique, beautiful creature; there was nothing else like it,” said British zoologist and conservationist Samuel Turvey, who spent more than two decades in China trying to track down the animal.

“It lasted tens of millions of years and it belonged to its own mammal family. There are other river dolphins in the world, but this one was very different, so it wasn’t related to anything else,” Turvey said. “Its demise was more than a tragedy for another species; it was a great loss of river diversity because of how unique it was and it left huge holes in the ecosystem.”

Experts have expressed grave concern that other rare species of animals and plants in the Yangtze could suffer a similar fate to the baiji river dolphin as climate change worsens and extreme weather conditions damage Asia’s longest river.

China has been dealing with the worst heatwave on record and the Yangtze, the world’s third longest river, is drying up.
With below average rainfall since July, local water levels have dropped to as low as 50% of their normal levels for this time of year, exposing cracked river beds and even submerged islands.
The drought has already had a devastating effect on China’s most important river, which stretches some 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 people
The human impact has been enormous. Factories were closed to preserve electricity and water supplies for tens of thousands of people.

Less talked about, experts say, is the environmental impact that climate change and associated extreme weather events have had on the protected and threatened species of fauna and flora that live in and around the river.

“The Yangtze is one of the most ecological rivers in the world for biodiversity and freshwater ecosystems, and we are still discovering new species every year,” said conservation ecologist Hua Fangyuan, an assistant professor at Peking University.

“Small (known) and unknown fish and many other aquatic species are probably facing extinction risks in silence and we don’t know enough.”

A Chinese alligator in a Shanghai zoo.  Native to the Yangtze, their numbers in the wild are declining dramatically and may worsen as the river shrinks and dries up.

Hundreds of endangered species

Over the years, conservationists and scientists have identified and documented the Yangtze’s native wild animal and plant species.

The world's rivers are drying up due to extreme weather.  See how 6 look from space

These include the Yangtze finless porpoise, similar to the baiji, Projected to extinction due to human activity and habitat loss, critically endangered reptiles such as the Chinese alligator and the Yangtze giant softshell turtle, believed to be the largest living freshwater turtle in the world.

Experts have also noted the dramatic decline of many native freshwater fish species, such as the now-extinct Chinese catfish and sturgeon.

At great risk is the Chinese giant salamander, one of the world’s largest amphibians. Wild populations have collapsed, said zoologist Turvey, and the species is “now on the brink of extinction”.

“Although they are a protected species, Chinese giant salamanders are under greater threat from climate change: increasing global temperatures and drought will do nothing when they are already highly vulnerable,” said Turvey.

A Chinese giant salamander pictured in a local breeding facility.

“For a long time, they have faced threats like hunting, habitat loss and pollution, but when you add climate change to the mix, their chances of survival are dramatically reduced,” he added.

“They can only live in freshwater environments and lower water levels would inevitably put more pressure across China.”

A problem for the world

Conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) say the condition of the Yangtze is a major concern not only for the Chinese people and government, but also for the wider international community.

“Rivers around the world, from Europe to the United States, have historically dropped to low flow levels that negatively impact ecosystems,” said its chief scientist, Jeff Opperman.

“Reduced river flows and warmer waters are threats to Yangtze freshwater species and increase pressure on already-endangered animals such as Yangtze finless porpoises and Chinese alligators remaining in the wild. Low river levels also affect the health of (nearby) lakes and wetlands. , vital to millions of migratory birds on the East Asian Flyway.”

A giant Yangtze softshell turtle in a zoo in Jiangsu province.  The species and other turtles are seriously threatened.
Hua, a conservationist, said more public awareness and greater efforts were needed to help curb China’s great river. “Humans depend on nature for survival, period. This is a lesson for any civilization,” he said.

“The Yangtze is China’s longest river and has long been the cradle of civilization. Despite serious conservation threats and losses over the years, there is still much biodiversity to conserve in and along the Yangtze.”

The now-extinct Chinese sturgeon: This was released into the Yangtze River in 2015.

Few would deny the importance and symbolism of the Yangtze. But experts say that unless action is taken — and soon — more species will follow the fate of the baiji and Chinese paddlefish.

British zoologist Turvey warned of the kind of complacency that allowed the baiji to disappear.

“The Yangtze was the jewel in Asia’s crown. There is still a lot of biodiversity to fight for and we must not give up hope to save species like giant salamanders, river reptiles and others,” said Turvey.

“If there is anything we can learn from the death of the Yangtze river dolphin, it is that extinction is eternal and cannot be taken lightly.”