The Baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) is a species of dolphin found in a 1700 kilometer stretch of the Yangtze River in China, from the Three Gorges to the mouth of the river. Alternatively known as the Chinese River Dolphin, the Yangtze Dolphin, the Pai C’hi, the Whitefin, or Whiteflag dolphin, the Baiji is the world’s most endangered cetacean, with an estimated five to twenty-five individuals alive today, and is found only in the Yangtze River. It could once be found in the Poyang and Donting lakes, but water levels have dropped too low to support them in those locations.

Weighing up to about five hundred pounds and measuring up to 8.2 feet in length, the Baiji is fairly similar in appearance to other dolphins of the world. Its snout, or rostrum, is much longer (about four times longer than some of its sea-faring cousins) than an average dolphin’s, often reaching a foot in length and accounting for more than ten percent of its total length, and is set with many sharp teeth. The Baiji has very small eyes set high on the sides of its head, which are very poor but functional. Considering the cloudy water of the Yangtze, this doesn’t matter much, and echolocation is the Baiji’s primary method of “sight.” The Baiji are a blue-grey color that fades to white on their undersides, with a blunt triangular dorsal fin.

While male Baiji reach maturity in about four years, females take more than six. The oldest known Baiji lived an estimated twenty-four years, based on examination of the dolphin’s dentistry, although the exact longevity of the species is unknown. The birth season for Baiji is the months of February and March, with a gestation period of ten to eleven months. Females give birth every two years to a single offspring.

The Baiji sank to its status as a critically endangered species mostly due to the nature of its primary competitor for habitat and food: man. The Yangtze River is one of the world’s most populated locales, with about twelve percent of world population living along it. Chemical and noise pollution, ship collisions, and accidental entrapment in fishing gear have all contributed to the decline of the Baiji population. The Three Gorges Dam, currently being constructed and due to be completed in 2009, will place more stress on an already endangered species. Local experts predict that the Baiji will become extinct in the near future, possibly the next twenty-five years.

An interesting note is that the Baiji is the only species that is a member of the Lipotes genus. The Latin Leipo means “left behind” and refers to the Baiji’s restricted distribution, while vexillifer means “to bear a banner;” hence, Whiteflag dolphin, one of the Baiji’s aliases. It has changed very little during its nearly twenty million year run through history, save changes forced upon it by humans.

Although the Baiji has become a source of concern among biologists and those who would be interested in saving it from being wiped out, it is teetering precariously on the edge of extinction, and our best efforts may prove to be too little, too late.