Witness to Extinction: How We Failed to Save the Yangtze River Dolphin
by Bhavani Prakash
Allowing a beautiful large mammal that has evolved over millions of years to disappear forever, is a monumental failure of human civilisation. Yet the extinction of the baiji dolphin of the Yangtze river is no longer on people’s radar screens. Why do we need to keep the story alive? How do we ensure the same fate doesn’t befall the other river dolphins of the Amazon, the Ganges and the Indus? What failures of conservation can we simply not allow to happen?
Though it has been a couple of years since the baiji dolphin of the Yangtze river in China has been declared “most likely” extinct – it was in 2007 when the announcement was made – why is it important for us not to let this unfortunate and unforgivable event fade out of human memory and consciousness?
Samuel Turvey , the conservation biologist who currently works for the Zoological Society of London, was deeply involved in the final stages of the project to save the baiji dolphin. His book, “Witness to Extinction: How we failed to save the Yangtze River Dolphin” takes a poignant and angry look at the series of lost chances that led a beautiful cetacean, one that has evolved over 20 million years to vanish forever from the face of this world in the blink of a planetary eye.
What is the baiji?
The baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) is a native of the longest river in Asia, the Yangtze which stretches over 6,300km from the Tibetan plateau to the East China Sea. The river boasts of rich biological diversity and endemic species such as the baiji. The baiji is one of 4 river dolphin species of the world, the others being the Amazon dolphin, the Ganges and Indus dolphin, and the La Plata dolphin (which live off the coasts of Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina in South America)
The baiji as a river dolphin is different in structure and appearance, to marine dolphins which look more streamlined. River dolphins have long thin beaks (about 30 cms and 4 times longer than marine dolphins), hump like dorsal fins and flexible necks. Their vision is poorly developed due to the muddy waters, which is compensated for by a heightened sonar sense – hence they move around and catch fish by echolocation. They often swim on their sides and feel the river bottom with flippers.
Why did the baiji disappear?
The oft assumed reason for the disappearance of the baiji is the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydro-electric power station in the world displacing over a million people along its 600 km long reservoir.
2000 years of relentless hunting had reduced the species to a rather precarious position in the 21st century. Though considered sacred in folklore, the baiji in reality was accorded no such status – being overfished for fat to produce oil for lamps, meat and traditional remedies for ailments.
Massive overpopulation along the Yangtze meant that everything was being removed from the river like a sieve. As early as the 1920s, Clifford Pope observed of Dongting (along the Yangtze)
“there are thousands of fishermen actually straining creatures of all sizes from the rapidly vanishing lake, and it seemed that the dolphin must soon fall victim to one of their innumerable methods of separating the water from everything in it but the mud.”
Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” in the 1950s transformed China’s agrarian economy into an industrial juggernaut overnight with devastating consequences for the natural environment – which according to Mao had to be “tamed into submission” by the plunder of forests for charcoal, and the construction of “large’ hydroelectrical projects to conquer rivers.
The massive scale of the Three Gorges project, the industrial activity and accompanying pollution of the Yangtze proved to be the last straw. Many riverine creatures on the Yangtze were killed during construction. It also prevented fish from moving into spawning gounds.
In 1988 there were about 200 baiji, a guesstimate at best given the various inconsistencies and challenges in the methods used to survey baijis over the 60s and 70s. The Three Gorges Dam increased the the quantum of ship traffic manifold. When Douglas Adams who wrote “Last Chance to See” lowered the microphone into the Yangtze he observed:
“ The sound we heard wasn’t exactly what I expected. Water is a very good medium for the propogation of sound and I had expected to hear clearly the heavy, pounding reverberations of each of the boats that had gone thundering by us as we stood on the deck. But water transmits sound even better than that, and what we were hearing was everything that was happening in the Yangtze for many, many miles around, jumbled cacophony together. Instead of hearing the roar of each individual ship’s propeller, what we heard was a sustained shrieking blast of pure white noise, in which nothing could be distinguished at all.”
For a near blind creature such as the baiji that relies heavily on the sense of sound for prey and survival, this pure white noise would be deadly indeed. Coming up to the surface, the baiji would often get disembowelled on propellers of boats. A third of the baiji found dead in the 1980s may have been killed this way.
Conservation efforts for the Baiji?
Recovery chances for endangered species though faint are by no means impossible. Stellar examples that go down in conservation history are the recovery through intense efforts – of the Mauritius Kestrel, the Chatham Island black robin, the kakapo – the world’s largest parrot in New Zealand.
When it came to the baiji, the level of determination required to save a highly endangered species was found to be really wanting. The Chinese government was in favour of ex-situ or off site conservation (by capturing the baiji and letting them breed in a reserve), while most Western conservationists felt the long term chances of survival would be better only if the natural habitat of the baiji, namely the condition of the Yangtze river was improved – something that wasn’t going to happen any time soon.
Turvey dwells upon the lip service and “slow pace of decision making” by both the Chinese Government and western conservationists which only tantamounted to shocking apathy. As Turvey indignantly points out, “ Just because you don’t feel that maintaining a viable population in a large protected oxbow (lake) is the ideal conservation solution, can you really then walk away and condemn the species to extinction, knowing that there’s no other option?
And yet, it would seem that the world did walk away. The reluctance to save the dolphin was evident in the sheer challenge of raising funds for the survey of the Yangtze river (the last one was done in the nineties showing rapid decrease in baiji numbers to about 13 animals), let alone funds for baiji conservation.
If Samuel Turvey and colleague Leigh Barrett hadn’t taken it upon themselves, giving it all their time and effort, literally scraping donors’ doors with begging bowls, even the survey would not have come through. The survey was the last chance for the baiji to study baiji numbers and initiate action to move any spotted dolphins to a reserve – the Tian-e-Zhou lake, the ox-bow lake 21km long.
The irony was that a million or so dollars required for baiji conservation wasn’t huge in the conservation world, considering tons of money were being poured into projects for less endangered species. US $190 million has been spent, for example on the research programme for the Stellar sea lion, which despite a serious decline in numbers off western Alaska, still has healthy populations along Alaska’s southeast coast.
The following video mentions the last surviving baiji dolphin, Qi-Qi (pronounced chee- chee) at Wuhan dolphinarium. Qi-Qi was studied by The Baiji Research Group which was headed by Wang Ding. Qi-Qi died at the age of 24 or 25 years (equivalent to a 70 year man) in 2002 after 22 years in captivity of old age and diabetes and had a funeral broadcast on national television.
Surveying the Yangtze river
When things eventually fell into place, Turvey’s team set off in two boats at the end of October 2006 for a six week journey upstream from Wuhan till Honghu and Yichang and back downstream to cover the range of the baiji.
The picture that Turvey paints of the Yangtze river is gloomy, to say the least. The haze of pollution from belching smokestacks and the economic activity supporting the mass of population along the banks – factories, oil refineries and chemical plants, along with the millions of tons raw sewage plants and industrial effluents that found its way into the river had taken a huge toll. The Yangtze had also become a motorway for thousands of freighters to enable this relentless economic engine to chug along. It was also quite evident that there was no enforcement of illegal fishing practices such as the use of rolling hook lines.
The reader is left to wonder, who’s bearing the real cost of China becoming the world’s factory? And of consumerism within China itself which has been quick to explode in the pursuit of relentless growth?
As the lead author of the report following the Yangtze survey, Turvey announced that it was a “shocking tragedy” that not a single baiji was spotted during the dreary 45 day trip. He describes how he had to juggle over semantics choosing to say the species is now “most likely” to be extinct, over what the Chinese felt was too strong in saying it was “probably” extinct.
But did it mean the baiji was really extinct? As quoted by the BBC “While it is conceivable that a couple of surviving individuals were missed by the survey teams, our inability to detect any baiji despite this intensive search effort indicates that the prospect of finding and translocating them to a [reserve] has all but vanished.”
As it so happened a baiji was spotted in 2007 but the likelihood of successful capture and breeding would really be next to impossible.
Collective memory of species extinction
In 2008, Turvey returned to interview the fishing communities along the Yangtze. To his surprise and consternation, “younger fishermen from the same communities had not only never seen baiji or paddlefish, but had never even heard of them.” His study called, “Rapidly Shifting Baselines in Yangtze Fishing Communities and Local Memory of Extinct Species” in Conservation Biology showed that extinct animals are surprisingly forgotten quickly.
It would seem that this loss of local cultural memory has spilled over to mainstream media as well, where the baiji is hardly ever mentioned anymore. We can’t let this collective memory loss happen, if we have to keep our hopes of saving the thousands of species at the brink of never coming back.
The fate of the river dolphins is symptomatic of the freshwater crisis facing the Asian river systems – which are collapsing due to climate change, population pressures and industrial development. The larger issue of how we protect and restore the river waters of Asia will hold the key to the fate of many endangered species.
If you’re looking for a message of hope in the book – there isn’t one. ”Someday it will all be over,” are Turvey’s final words. And they come as a shock.
Protecting a unique, endangered species is the moral responsibility of the world. If at all there is something that Turvey teaches us, it is this: the effort and energy shown by a few individuals like him can make a difference, if done in good time. It was too late for the baiji, but maybe, just maybe, there is a tiny window of opportunity for the other river dolphins of the world.
Further links you may be interested in:
EWTT: So Just What Is Shark Fin Soup?
EWTT: The Waters of The Third Pole : Water Crisis in Asia
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