Witness to Extinction

Everyone loves dolphins, don’t they? And the baiji—the Yangtze River Dolphin—was so beautiful. Along the river, legends abound of its origin from the metamorphosis of a tragically drowned maiden. For years it was known that the baiji was at serious risk from the highly polluted river, snagged and electrocuted by indiscriminate fishing methods, cut and torn by the propellers of heavy boat traffic. Everyone spoke of saving the baiji. And yet the baiji is gone.

Samuel Turvey is a biologist and palaeontologist—one of the dynamic new wave of passionate conservationists. Hearing of the plight of the baiji on a visit to China to study fossils, he quickly became drawn into the effort to save it. He was actively involved in the final phases of the story, and took part in the survey up and down the Yangtze in 2006 which established that the animal must now be considered extinct. This is his story of how opportunities were lost, time and again, for concerted, effective action. It is a story told with passion, anger, and pain. And a story we need to heed if we are to prevent this from happening again.

All the meetings, the discussions, the feeble practical efforts proved inappropriate, or too little, and far too late. The extinction of a large, charismatic mammal such as the baiji, with its ancient evolutionary history as a river dolphin, shocked the world when it was announced in 2007. How could it happen?

The baiji, a beautiful slender creature long celebrated in stories along the Chinese river, is gone forever. Everyone knew it was at risk, and much was made of the threat of extinction. Urgent appeals for effective international action were made time and time again. Too late.

Samuel Turvey’s personal account of the failure to save the dolphin is frank, passionate, and filled with frustration and pain. But it also carries important lessons: we have lost the baiji, but there are other remarkable animals and plants under grave threat. We must not let this happen again.

“We passed slowly between soggy mud banks heavy with wet grass and the skeletons of trees . . . in front of the ship everything faded into a grey void. It was completely silent. We stood vigilantly on deck, peering out into the blankness. Everything felt poised and expectant . . . and then, ahead of us, the end of the side-channel condensed out from the grey air.  We had seen nothing.”

“At last someone is publicly mourning the tragic extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin. This is a highly authoritative, well written, thought-provoking and timely book.” Mark Carwardine, co-author of Last Chance to See.

“A grim tale – but essential reading.” Mick Herron, Geographical.

“Informative, comprehensive – and angry – study.” Jonathan Mirsky, Literary Review.

“A harsh cautionary tale that’s honest and realistic about what’s needed to save species facing extinction.” Publishers Weekly.

“You might consider it one very small stroke of luck for the species that it has such a fine eulogist – a scientific expert who writes with passion and style.” blogcritics.org.

Buy your copy here.


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  1. John Chadwick said,

    on April 28th, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    I think it is sad, however it fits with Dawinian genetics that species will go extinct. If this species had been ‘fitter’ then it would still be alive.. if it had swam faster or explored further afield then it could have escaped the pollution and human persecution. We need to stop being so introspective and let the animals sort themselves out, is it worth spending money on conserving animals that aren’t good enough to help themselves.
    I would be interested to know what sally and others thought about this.

  2. haunted by the baiji said,

    on April 28th, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    I’m not a biologist, but just speaking from a layman’s perspective:

    1)An interesting argument …. but one that can be easily refuted. You are trying to fit the extinction of the Baiji into a Darwinian evolution, which itself is a framework hypothesized by mankind. You are trying to fit the tragic demise of this species into a an operating framework produced by yourself. Yes, if an alien visiting our planet made this observation, I would agree with it, but as a human responsible for such extinctions … does not work.

    2)Moreover if you want to talk about Darwin theories, then historically evolution has never ever seen as ultra an apex and dominant a species as humans … a species which consumes and demands more than it needs. So one really questions the validity of the applying Darwinian framework here because the situation itself is so different.

    3)If we “leave animals to sort themselves out”, they would have managed fine … the crux of the issue is that we are not leaving them to sort themselves out: in this case we electrocuted, shred, and poisoned this animal to extinction. More importantly if we “leave animals to sort themselves out” going by the current run rate, there will be only 9-10 species of mammals (lots of jellyfish and algae species, though) fit to survive on the polluted, hot & barren earth we leave behind.

    I’m from India and was really worked up by the Baiji issue, b/c we have our own Gangetic River dolphin species back here, suffering a similar fate (no propeller shredding, but by catch in fishing and extreme river pollution is decimating this beautiful species) … and there are thousands of other plants and animals in a simiar situation, worldwide. It’s really really sad … and I fell helpless and frustrated at the thought that they will eventually just be wiped out.

    All said and done though, I think you have raised a very important point. As much despair and disbelief I feel at the loss of the Baiji, I wonder why the Baiji has gone, but the Finless Porpoise has still managed to (just about) hang in there (though they too are going down) … maybe the Baiji was a tad less tough than the Finless Porpoises when it came to evolutionary tenacity? Was it? It would be great to hear comments from Dr. Turvey, Sally & others.

    But in the end it feels horrible to be taking about “ghosts and rumours” as Dr. Turvey so correctly put. (Also farewell to the Yangtze Paddlefish, which also went down around the same time as the Baiji)

  3. John Chadwick said,

    on April 29th, 2009 at 10:30 am

    thanks for taking the time to reply ‘hunted by the Baiji’, interestng viewpoints you have and if you would honour me with the privalge of a reply the please read on…

    Humans fit perfectly into Darwinian theory and therefore can not be excluded from it. We are simply a predator, most other species we regard as prey (directly or indirectly). The beauty of Darwinian theory is that it works if you look at humans, single celled organisms, or plants.. we can not be so arragont to exlude ourselves from the process..

    We are exerting a darwinian force on all the species we interact with and the evolutionary process is occurring, we are just too short sighted to see it. For instance you could drive down any road and see dead animals hit by cars. Over evolutionary time, only those animals which stay a long way away from the road will survive and breed. Therefore there will be a selection process occurring which faviours those animals which remain discrete and hidden away from human contact. We don’t need to put the effort and expense into saving these animals, lets allow evolution to do its thing.

    Which takes me back to the original message, yes its devastating that this dolphin has gone, but thats evolution for you. The ecosystem it inhabited was ruined anyway so the loss of this species will not impact on many other species. Lets purely focus on those species which have a relevant ecosystem function rather then ‘cute’ or ‘big’ animals.

    I therefore ask the question.. is conservation really worth it? Apart from our aesthetic pleasure from seeing such cool animals why don’t we let nature take its course. Extinctions have occurred for millions of years and long may they continue.

  4. Sally Wren said,

    on May 1st, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    John you are correct that species will go extinct naturally, for example when natural selection occurs and they are out-competed by a species better adapted to that particular environment. However, the current extinction crisis is different from the natural ebb and flow of adaptation and evolution – species are being lost at an extraordinary rate, and in many cases (including that of the baiji) they are not being replaced by a better adapted alternative, probably because humans have put such a great amount of pressure on the environment in such a short space of time that the burden is too great for natural selection to occur.

    You also argued, as I have heard many Devil’s Advocates argue, that we Homo sapiens are that better adapted species. However, I disagree that humans as a ‘superior’ species fits with traditional Darwinian evolutionary theory, primarily because unlike most other species we have the ability to make conscious actions, understanding what the consequences of those actions might be. I am not excluding us from the process, because I agree that we are indeed just animals, but I am making the point that selection processes are no long occurring ‘naturally’ once we have an understanding of the cause and effect of our actions.

    We make choices, whereas other species compete with one another through instinctive behaviours, taking whatever actions necessary for them to survive. I think that humans do not represent ‘survival of the fittest’ but ‘survival of the greediest’; we don’t take just what we need to survive, but in many parts of the world take as much as we can to fulfil our wants and desires. If an animal is not hungry it will not bother wasting energy to catch more food, if a plant doesn’t need water it will not take it from the earth.

    As we have the ability of free thought, and the ever-growing understanding of how our actions affect the world upon which we reply, I believe that we should be accountable for our actions, and take the responsibility for situations such as threatened species on the brink of extinction.

    Looking specifically at the baiji, this species has survived on its own evolutionary path for 20 million years, and had found its niche in the Yangtze until we changed this environment in an instant (when you’re looking at 20 million years of specifically adapted evolution). John, you suggest that it could have swam faster or explored further afield, but in an environment littered with fish hooks, enormous boats, industrial pollutants, effluent, and dams, where exactly could the baiji swim or explore?

    You are right that the loss of the baiji may not have a huge impact on other species – but in a natural system this would have had an effect, there would have been an ecological niche vacant to be taken up by the winning species. Very little can survive in the current environment the Yangtze has to offer.

    You suggest that we should only conserve species that provide a function. I value species intrinsically, not just for the function they provide (there we go being greedy again, just focussing on what we can get out of a species). I don’t believe that efforts should be focussed on ‘cute’ species (although the majority of organisations focus on charismatic mega-fauna). However, there is an argument that ‘big’ animals can act as flagships, the conservation of which being an ‘umbrella’, providing for uncountable small and even microscopic species.

    ‘Haunted by the baiji’ – I agree with a lot of what you say, so thank you for making these points, but don’t feel helpless! We are the only ones who can help mitigate out actions, which have put so many species in a situation similar to that of the baiji. If we are helpless then conservation really is a lost cause!

    So I think without a question it is worth spending money on conservation of threatened species – I actually don’t believe enough financial support is being given to conservation efforts that are more than just ‘green-washing’. In fact, conservation is more than ‘worth doing’; we have the responsibility to take action.

  5. Haunted by the Baiji said,

    on May 2nd, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    John: Well, I guess Sally has rested the case (told you we needed an expert on this).

    A couple of very layman points I would like to add:

    1) If you say that we should be practical and should go about saving only those animals which are “savable”, then by the same logic, if you have two kids … on normal and one physically challenged, you should just abandon the challenged kid and focus on bringing the normal kid up (thats what animals do) … that is, if you want to fit yourself into Darwinian evolution. Do you? Will you?

    In the same token I feel we definitely need to extend the same behavior to the species around us.

    2) On your point of animals which avoid crossing roads surviving … tell me which places on earth don’t have roads crossing them these days? (Just last month a pregnant female elephant got mowed down by train in my country … the train tracks were crossing a protected wildlife habitat … the death was slow and painful … it took a day for her and her unborn calf to die) And if they don’t today, can you guarantee that they won’t 30 years from now? This is the heart of the issue of the new “age of extinction” that is dawning upon us … between the early 18th to mid 19th century thousands of species of animals became extinct as Europeans colonized the world, and hunted them down. Now in the 21st century many thousands more will become extinct not because of us hunting them down, but just having the misfortune of having to co-exist alongside, us as we render their habitats fit survival of only the toughest algae and bacteria.

    All said and done though, really appreciate your interest in this unfortunate tale of extinction, and for raising the very valid point that we tend to anchor ourselves to only the big and charismatic species … the Baiji being a perfect example of this. Like I said previously, did anybody say anything about the Yangtze Paddlefish (the world’s largest freshwater fish)? It is also extinct … it became extinct about the same time and in the same way as the Baiji (few and far between sightings in 2004 and none after that). And there are millions of species like this, which must have vanished without our even knowing of their existence. This anchoring phenomenon is a fundamental flaw with us humans (frankly, even I was more upset when I heard of the Baiji extinction, than when I heard of the Yangtze Paddlefish)

    Sally: Thanks, for putting Darwinian evolution in the human context, into words so beautifully. I am grateful to folks like you who have undertaken the daunting task that you are doing.

    In this context of hope … thanks so much for the inspiration to work towards conservation, and I do believe hope is the best thing we have, and the very first thing we should work towards having.

    However, I am a realist … and I do believe that in the case of Asia, no matter what we do (with and an exponentially exploding population, corrupt governance, and general ignorance of the masses about environmental issues), we will witness the mass extinctions we are foreseeing. And no amount of conservation efforts can do anything about this … because the issue is about the very basic quality of human life … humans here are struggling to make ends meet; here their own survival is in question, where does the scope of them even considering the survival of anything else come up?

    In the end its a very philosophical question about the human race itself … I believe the destruction and rape of this planet will continue for another 30-40 years by which time radical changes in climate and terrestrial ecosystems will make conditions of survival much harsher for even us humans. Human population will will contract drastically, and we will start repenting our mistakes … hopefully, we will become a much more caring and gentle species then, and will work towards salvaging what little we have left on our planet.

    But then again, like I said, I’m a realist/pessimist … I’m really really hopeful that with wonderful efforts like yours, and general education of the masses, we can still reverse the damage that we are doing.

    Thanks to both of you for contributing your ideas to this mini-debate. Further comments/ criticism most welcome.

  6. Haunted by the Baiji said,

    on May 2nd, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    Sorry for missing out on mentioning this w/ the previous post … but I believe that the Baiji is the symbol of the impending “Great Asian Freshwater Crisis”. The next 15 years are going to see immense strain on all Asian freshwater systems as climate changes deplete the freshwater reserves across the continent, and damming, effluent release, and sewage discharge from an exploding population render, what little that’s left, unfit for any forms of life (forget consumption).

    … the Yangtze is a perfect example of this. Similarly, back in India we have the Yamuna (it has to be seen to be believed … a river turned drain). Any thoughts on this?

  7. Favad said,

    on May 12th, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    Hey everyone! I hate to agree with pessimistic view of Haunted by the Baiji. We humans have amazing capacity to destroy the ecology, take no responsibility and come up with explanations. Loss of Baiji, imminent fresh water crisis in sub-continent (one study by WWF puts Indus and Nile as the most likely river systems to be affected by climate change) further threatens two more endangered fresh water dolphins – ganges and indus, and that leaves one in amazon. what an achievement in the name of development!

  8. Orlin said,

    on May 14th, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    To John Chadwick:

    If we stopped caring about animals that cannot care about themselves, maybe you, John Chadwick, or your future heirs wouldnt have been here at all. I am telling you, that without efforts for conservation we can easily wipe out most of the species in the future…with people thinking like you.

    You are able of building a huge oil factory next to a river – its killing all the inhabitants of that river not being able to care for themselves. You are predator or whatever you’d like to think of yourself, but me as a biologist and as a thinking being i can say that i want to minimize the impact that i have on the system called nature. That i do, because i consider my self different from most of the other animals. And that is what makes me different – i care about the system and consciously i want to minimize my impact on it, so i can easily explore it as much and as long as I (my species, but excluding people like you) want.

    No only should we rise the efforts for conservation, but predators like John Chadwick should go visit some kind of correctional facilities – not prisons – but something that can make a predator animal like him into something different – conscious human being caring about the system he inhabits….

    I cannot get more offended, than from “experts” on Darwinism and genetics, evolution etc. like John Chadwick. I feel ashamed i share the planet with “predator like you”.

    (N.B. – If i were following your predator principle and the natural animal law of survival of the fittest, i would have found you and eliminated your gene material, believe me. I will not do it, because i dont agree with a word that you are saying. Evolutionosta… No u really, ****** me off with your first post).

    …and i just read what Sally said – she was very polite with you i can say….

  9. Haunted by the Baiji said,

    on July 25th, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    Just managed to get my ordered copy of Dr. Turvey’s depressing yet riveting book, and finished reading it. I once again applaud the efforts of the select few, who mustered the meagre resources at their disposal to organize a last ditch effort to save this charismatic species, and mourn the loss this beautiful animal.

    Also saw some really depressing and morbid pictures of the Yangtze river during the expedetion. The picture of the rickety survey vessel, against the backdrop of a smog filled blackened sky polluted with soot and smoke emanating from nearby factories, makes me wonder if even the ghost of the Baiji can survive this murky hell called the Yangtze.

    Dr. Turvey’s ending words in the book: “Someday soon, it really will all be over” … surely, it will all be over very soon … unfortunately our greedy and selfish species will also take a whole lot of collateral damage down with it.

    May the tormented soul of the poor Baiji rest in peace.

  10. Don Waller said,

    on December 13th, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    Just finished it – wonderful book, on a painfully sad topic. You tell the tale well, though, and draw useful lessons. I especially appreciated the historical and scientific depth. You make a convincing case for captive breeding for late-stage conservation situations. Should be required reading for conservation biology students.

  11. tanesha said,

    on March 8th, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    that is so sad i hope every one can get through the extintion

  12. L.NTRISAL said,

    on May 31st, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    It is unfortunate that we human beings while trying to forget Altruism and adopting selfishness have lost track and in the process we will loose ourselves. Forget extinction of Baiji and other species not even identified.What matters now is KNOW THYSELF can save us from the MENACE

  13. Michelle said,

    on September 1st, 2011 at 8:52 am

    I guess I can be optimistic… I think maybe it’s still alive, just eluding us… I hope. But if not, this will always be one of my favourite mammals. It will live on in our minds.

  14. nic said,

    on December 22nd, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    I think this is terrible. Such a beatifull species, lost forever??
    The Yangtze River is one of the most polluted rivers in the world… i think that it was obvious that the baiji was going to the extinct species hall… all those years of pollution, over-fishing, electrical fishing incidents…
    But i have hope, a lot of it. Other species (a great example, the new zealand storm petrel) were “extinct” for decades, until someone rediscovered them… The chances are 90/10 against the baiji, but i still have hope…

  15. Irene said,

    on March 18th, 2012 at 4:01 am

    I totally agree with Haunted by the Baiji and Sally Wren. Thank you for your great discussion. I was also very upset when I heard about the extinction of the Baiji and it’s good to share these emotions with everyone as it brings out new energies and inspirations. Around the time when the Baiji got extinct I decided to take action and I started a community organisation to raise awareness of environmental issues with the general public called Whale of a Time. If anyone is interested please feel free to check out my educational project and pass it on. Have a whale of a time! 🙂 http://www.whaleofatime.org

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