It's been more than a decade since the last confirmed sighting of China's freshwater Baiji dolphin, and while these marine mammals have not yet been declared officially extinct by the IUCN (they are currently listed as "Critically Endangered, Possibly Extinct,") experts generally agree that there's no hope for the revitalization of the species.
The uncertain certainty of the creature's status is what inspired Baltimore-based artist Jonathan Latiano to build "The Flight of the Baiji," an eerie installation that memorializes the Yangtze River dolphin and asks the viewer to ruminate on the ecological consequences of rampant industrialization.
"I am attracted to these grayer areas of science, particularly the idea that, once something has been proven to exist it is incredibly challenging to prove that it no longer exists," Latiano explains in an interview with BmoreArt. "Almost certainly the Baiji are all gone; if there are individuals still out there in the wild, it is widely believed that the population numbers are no longer viable to genetically sustain itself. The Baiji river dolphin now exists in a kind of limbo straight categorically, that is functional extinction; it may take years if not decades to conclusively prove that they are definitively gone."
To create his visual ode to this doomed creature, Latiano collected driftwood from local freshwater lakes and rivers, and then cleaned and bleached them to give them a bone-like hue. He then hand-carved each "bone" to create entire skeletal units, and suspended them from the ceiling to make them appear as if they are soaring through the air. The result, which was displayed at the Baltimore Museum of Art last year, is as hauntingly beautiful as it is unsettling.
"We’re used to looking at fossilized bones and taxidermied animals in museums that showcase that sort of thing," Michael O'Sullivan writes in a Washington Post review of Latiano's work, "but there’s something in that more clinical context that allows us to see them as artifacts instead of once-living creatures. Paradoxically, by distancing us from the real animal, Latiano brings us even closer to them. His figures are make-believe, fashioned from wood, not bones. But hanging over our heads, close enough to touch, they’re ghostly reminders that we, quite literally, swim in the same stream.”
Thousands of Baiji dolphins once roamed the freshwater currents of China's Yangtze River, but the species' numbers began to plummet in the mid-20th century, starting with the after-effects of the country's "Great Leap Forward." The major social and economic campaign, which lasted from 1958 to 1961, downgraded the long-held venerable status of the Baiji dolphins, resulting in a time when the animals were hunted without regulation.
Although unchecked hunting played a major role in their decline, there were several other contributing factors — electrofishing, a steady increase of chemical and noise pollution, fatal entanglements with fishing gear and collisions with boats. Another devastating blow to the species was the building of the Gezhouba and Three Gorges dams, which destroyed their habitats and caused an increase in boat collisions due to the corresponding rise in ship traffic along the river.
When the Chinese government finally realized the species was experiencing serious environmental stress, the Baiji dolphin was declared endangered in 1979, and the hunting of Baiji dolphins was finally outlawed in 1983. Sadly, with the country's rapid industrialization showing no signs of slowing down, it soon became apparent that the creatures had gone past the point of no return.
A survey in 1990 estimated that there was likely no more than 100 individuals living along the species' 1,600-kilometer natural range of the Yangtze River, and by 1997, the estimated population had dropped to below 50 individuals.
The species' last confirmed sighting, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, occurred in 2004. However, during an extensive, six-week survey of the Baiji's natural range in the Yangzte River in 2006, scientists found no further evidence of the species' continued existence, rendering them functionally extinct.
The scientists published their survey findings in a 2007 study, writing, "this represents the first global extinction of a large vertebrate for over 50 years, only the fourth disappearance of an entire mammal family since AD 1500, and the first cetacean species to be driven to extinction by human activity."