FROM deep inside a darkened tank streaked black with mildew, a
sound floats upward like a soft whisper.
Inside, "Qiqi," (pronounced chi-chi), the only Yangtze River
dolphin in captivity, exhales through his blowhole and waves his
long beak, pacing his shallow home with sonar as he has done for 11
To the few Chinese scientists trying to save the species from
extinction, Qiqi's breath sounds more like a sigh every day.
China's leadership next month will consider building a dam on the
Yangtze that would hasten the steady drift of the river dolphin
The Yangtze dolphin population has shrunk by a third since the
International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural
Resources declared it one of the world's 12 most endangered animals
in 1986. Only about 200 of the silver cetaceans remain.
"If we don't take further steps, the dolphin will completely die
out," says Cao Wenxuan, an ichthyologist at the Institute of
Hydrobiology in Wuhan.
The threat to the dolphin is one example of how the world's
largest dam would damage the environment in the world's most densely
populated river basin.
Beijing will base its decision on building the dam on two studies
claiming that gains in flood control, hydropower, and shipping would
far outweigh the injuries to man and the environment caused by the
dam, Chinese and foreign scientists say.
The studies, one conducted by China and the other by a consortium
of Canadian companies in the mid-1980s, are flawed, the scientists
say. According to them, the studies are too superficial to enable
Beijing to make a valid environmental assessment.
Critics charge that the dam would harm the environment for man,
the river dolphin, and other species in several ways.
Most notably, the dam would disrupt the rhythmic rise and fall of
the river, causing losses for some 75 million people who eke out a
living downstream from the dam site, the scientists say.
The losses to fishermen and farmers will be especially severe
because China lacks the money to shepherd them into a comparable
livelihood, says Joseph Larson at the University of Massachusetts,
There is "no excuse" for Beijing's failure to "factor the losses
for these people into the costs of the dam," says Dr. Larson, a
professor of wildlife biology and director of the university's
Moreover, the dam would likely curtail the river's capacity to
flush out pollution and replenish nutrients downstream, observers
The gigantic structure would probably reduce the volume and
quality of water for city dwellers and peasants, and increase soil
erosion and sedimentation.
Finally, the dam could threaten an array of wildlife, including
the Siberian crane, Chinese sturgeon, and the dolphin, according to
the scientists. The possible changes to the environment would be so
far-reaching and complex that they defy accurate prediction, they
"The scale of the Three Gorges project is so vast that there is
no way that anyone will be able to figure out how to classify the
social and ecological impact of it," says Baruch Boxer, head of the
department of human ecology at Rutgers University.
The uncertainties highlight a paradox reminiscent of
Frankenstein: Mankind's awesome power to control nature exceeds its
ability to comprehend the myriad consequences resulting from the
exercise of such power. …