home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

witness to extinction

28 july 2012

I first learned about the baiji, the Yangtze river dolphin, in one of Douglas Adams's essays in Last Chance to See. I first learned about Samuel Turvey when I saw a notice somewhere of a collection he'd edited on "Holocene extinctions." That collection turned out to be a thorough documentation of extinction since the emergence of humans as a dominant world species – but to be rather dry reading. Turvey's Witness to Extinction, which I then found along some database's train of associations, is anything but dry, however. His account of the extinction of the baiji, which happened not just since the rise of humans but since I began posting reviews here at lection, is sobering and acidly humorous. And it offers little hope for other species on the fast track to extinction.

It turns out that I'm hardly alone in learning about the baiji from Douglas Adams and his co-author Mark Carwardine. Turvey asks, "why do most people I have spoken to, if they know anything about the baiji at all, tell me that they have only ever heard about its plight in Last Chance to See rather than through 'official' conservation channels?" (68) His most withering scorn is reserved not for the Chinese fishermen, peasants, and capitalists who have eroded the baiji's ecosystem, or even for the hypocritical Chinese officials who have paid only lip service to conservation. He's angriest at the high-profile Western charities – you know the ones, they send you address labels in the mail and offer you water bottles and tote bags with their logo on them – who figured, in the 1990s and 2000s, that efforts to save the baiji from extinction would be bad for their bottom line.

"Oh well," a grant reviewer for one such group tells Turvey, "there's no point in throwing away money on lost causes." Turvey replies, "Causes only become lost if no one gives them any support" (191). "The last thing I want would be to dissuade anybody from supporting conservation," Turvey goes on to say. "But if this story were allowed to go untold, then the same mistakes and the same tragedies will be fated to play themselves out again and again" (201).

Turvey documents his argument with energy and precision. The extinction of the baiji was massively overdetermined. Industrial development along the Yangtze fouled its ecosystem – notably, as Adams and Carwardine found, via sound pollution (dolphins are echolocators), but also via poisons which killed baiji directly and reduced stocks of the fish they fed on. Fishing killed many other baiji as by-catch. Boats sliced into them, and dams altered the currents that fed their ecosystems. People ate them (and with reason, during the years of starvation that characterized the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution; people eating baiji then remind me of people in the American South eating ivory-billed woodpeckers during the Depression).

By the 1980s thaw in Chinese intellectual and diplomatic life, the baiji was nearly doomed, and the infrastructure needed to bring the species back from the brink was practically unobtainable. But the anguish of Turvey's book is in those qualifiers "nearly" and "practically." If the attention of the autocratic Chinese government had been combined with a full-court press by the Western conservation societies, it is tantalizingly possible that an "ex-situ" solution could have been reached: the establishment of a small founder population of baiji in an oxbow lake or other sheltered ecosystem. Pandas have done OK lately under analogous circumstances: though granted, pandas live in remote wilderness, not in the middle of the busiest river on Earth.

No such last-ditch attempt, however, was ever seriously undertaken. (Turvey complains, with the prejudice born of repeated disillusionment, that Chinese people simply don't take reality seriously; as long as face is saved, he grouses, there's no underlying concern in China for the environment. I hope he's wrong about that, and I'm sure he's wrong about many individual Chinese researchers.)

And yet it remains difficult to declare the baiji utterly extinct. Baiji are still sighted occasionally. As Cornell ornithologists note in the case of the ivory-bill, it is hard to say when a species ceases to exist. After some reasonably good sightings of the ivory-bill in the mid-2000s, researchers are now moving to the rueful hypothesis that, like the baiji, the ivory-bill is "functionally extinct": whatever scattered individuals survive will never again establish a viable population.

Turvey still wants to see one of those scattered individuals, and much of Witness to Extinction is taken up with his quest. The journal-like sections of the book that narrate his futile trips up and down the Yangtze and its tributaries in search of an isolated baiji make for desultory and depressing reading. (With complete fortuitousness, they reminded me of sections of another book by a British author I'd recently read, Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners by Sandy Nairne, which also combines skillful exposition with protracted reminiscence.)

But much of Witness to Extinction is timely, informative, and monitory. It's an essential study of the factors that can combine to erase even an extremely charismatic member of the planet's "megafauna."

Turvey, Samuel. Witness to Extinction: How we failed to save the Yangtze river dolphin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.