The baiji population declined drastically in decades as China industrialized and made heavy use of the river for fishing, transportation, and hydroelectricity. It has been credibly claimed, after surveys in the Yangtze River during the 1980s, that baiji could be the first dolphin species in history that humans have driven to extinction. A Conservation Action Plan for Cetaceans of the Yangtze River was approved by the Chinese Government in 2001. Efforts were made to conserve the species, but a late 2006 expedition failed to find any baiji in the river. Organizers declared the baiji functionally extinct. The baiji represents the first documented global extinction of a "megafaunal" vertebrate for over 50 years since the demise of the Japanese sea lion and the Caribbean monk seal in the 1950s. It also signified the disappearance of an entire mammal family of river dolphins (Lipotidae). The baiji's extinction would be the first recorded extinction of a well-studied cetacean species (it is unclear if some previously extinct varieties were species or subspecies) to be directly attributable to human influence.
The Chinese media reported that a local businessman in Tongling City in east China's Anhui Province filmed "a big white animal" with his digital camera on August 19. The footage was later confirmed to be the Baiji by Prof. Wang Ding, a leading scientist in Baiji study at the Institute of Hydrobiology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Swiss economist and CEO of the baiji.org Foundation, August Pfluger funded the expedition, in which an international team, taken in part from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Fisheries Research Agency in Japan, searched for six weeks for signs of the dolphin. The search took place almost a decade after the last exploration in 1997, which turned up only 13 of the cetaceans.