“Goddess of the Yangzi” might not be extinct after all.

The Guardian has an optimistic story out of central China, with news that the baiji – the Yangzi River dolphin, one of the oldest aquatic mammal species in the world – might be reappearing in the waters where it had been thought extinct:

Scientists and environmentalists had appeared to abandon hope that China’s baiji, or white dolphin, could survive as a species after they failed to find a single animal during a fruitless six-week hunt along the 6,300-km (3,915-mile) waterway in 2006.

But a team of amateur conservationists now claims it spotted the so-called “goddess of the Yangtze” last week on a stretch of Asia’s longest river near the city of Wuhu in Anhui province.

“No other creature could jump out of the Yangtze like that,” Song Qi, the leader of that expedition told Sixth Tone, a government-backed news website. “All the eyewitnesses – which include fishermen – felt certain that it was a baiji.”

The amateur conservationist, whose day job is as a publisher in Beijing, admitted he was not a baiji specialist and could not be totally sure the animal he had seen was the aquatic mammal. His group captured no images that might conclusively identify it.

But Song said local fisherman who had also seen the creature were “100% certain” it was the baiji.

With the apparent confirmation of its demise, the narrow-beaked river dolphin has become a symbol of the devastating environmental price China has paid for decades of unbridled development.

Song said he hoped his team’s unconfirmed baiji sighting would prompt renewed efforts to save the species. He vowed to launch another expedition along the Yangtze early next year. “I want society to realise that the baiji is not extinct,” he said.

However, [Samuel] Turvey, a senior research fellow at the Zoological Society of London who took part in the unsuccessful 2006 search mission, said he was skeptical about the 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,” the conservation biologist said in an email.

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