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The Yangtze River Dolphin

The baiji, the Yangtze River Dolphin, was a beautiful slender creature and despite the fact that everyone knew it was at risk for extinction, urgent appeals for effective action were ignored. Samuel Turvey, the author of Witness To Extinction: How We Failed to Save the Yangtze River Dolphin, took part in the survey of the Yangtze in 2006 which discovered that the baiji was extinct. His book tells the tale of our failure to save this stunning creature with a distinct wish, that we not let this happen again. In the excerpt below Turvey recounts how he first found out about the danger the baiji was facing.

Thanks to the environmentalist movements of the 1970s and early 1980s, my generation was the first to be brought up with a real awareness of endangered species. My enthusiasm was fired by children’s books, documentaries, and World Wildlife Fund sticker albums, which all described in exhaustive detail the range of animals that were threatened with imminent extinction. Whales and dolphins always received a mention in the books of my childhood, but the focus was typically on anti-whaling campaigns instead of more obscure freshwater species. However, I learnt about a much wider range of cetaceans from Bernard Stonehouse’s Sea Mammals of the World, which despite its title included information about river dolphins as well. Stonehouse described how the Ganges and Indus dolphins-lumped together in his book as a single species-were now endangered and declining fast. The section on the baiji, however, was far more equivocal: ‘Some concern is felt for their future, and local scientists are seeing how they can best be protected.’

But it was not until after I had first visited china for my doctoral research that I learnt anything different about the status of the baiji. In a lavishly illustrated coffee-table book on recently extinct species published in 2001 called A Gap in Nature, the author-the famous Australian zoologist Tim Flannery-set the scene by describing some species that still survived today but were on the absolute verge of dying out. Most of these accounts of endangered animals were retellings of sadly familiar stories, but Flannery’s most shocking example was horribly new to me. ‘China’s bizarre Yangtze River dolphin, with its white skin, slender beak and reduced eyes, is down to a single individual, and when it passes away another name will be added to the death list.’

I was stunned. Could this be true? If so, how could this horrendous situation have seemingly been ignored completely by the conservation community and the world’s media? Surely the imminent extinction of a beautiful and distinctive dolphin, especially one that was held in such high esteem by the Chinese people, should have been an easy target for publicity and fund-raising. After all, everyone loved dolphins, didn’t they-the capacity for popular support for their conservation was illustrated by the tremendous public outcry about accidental dolphin deaths in the marine fishing industry, which had led to the development of ‘dolphin-friendly (and hence consumer-friendly) fishing techniques for tuna and other species. So what could possibly have gone so wrong for the baiji?

Looking back from where I sit now, at the end of the story, I don’t remember exactly how I went beyond being just another concerned bystander and first became actively involved with the baiji. I had just completed a postdoctoral research fellowship in New Zealand, and was starting a new position at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). But the precarious status of the baiji kept nagging at me. I couldn’t stop wondering about what was being done to try to save the species from extinction. Was the international community pulling together, galvanized to carry out a vital, concerted last-minute recovery strategy? I read everything that I could find about the beautiful, enigmatic, pearly-white dolphin that had captured my imagination and passion like nothing else. I was obsessed. Was there anything I could do to help?

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