Although they had been recorded in Chinese texts dating back 2000 years, the baiji were first “discovered” early in the 20th century by the son of an American missionary, who captured one and sent the body back to the United States for classification. Because this specimen was taken in or near Dongting Lake, it was believed that the baiji lived only in the lake. Dongting Lake is actually a large complex of interconnected lakes and waterways feeding into the Yangtze River about halfway between Wuhan and Yichang (the latter is a small city that straddles the downstream entrance to the Three Gorges). In the 1950s, Dr. Zhou discovered that the baiji also lived in the Yangtze River itself. Now, Dr. Zhou believes that the baiji may have never lived in Dongting Lake on a permanent basis – as he told us, it is sometimes “difficult to tell where the river ends and the lake begins,” especially when the water level is high due to seasonal flooding.
Currently, despite the baiji's status as very endangered and a “most protected” animal in China, Dr. Zhou's research seems to have only a low priority at the University. We originally looked for him in the recently built and easily located Biology Department building on the Nanjing Normal University campus. There was no obvious sign of him or anything having to do with the river dolphins. We eventually (and serendipitously) received directions to his office/laboratory, which turned out to be located in a tiny, run-down building tucked away in an unused and overgrown corner of the sports field at the very edge of the campus.