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Witness to Extinction

By on April 27, 2009 in EDGE Updates, Focal species, Mammals, Uncategorized, Yangtze river dolphin

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.”

Buy your copy here.