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Death of a species

Susan Jappie reviews Witness to extinction: How we failed to save the Yangtze river dolphin   

This is the account of the author’s investigation into the imminent extinction of a fabled creature unique to China’s huge Yangtze river, the white river dolphin, or “baiji”. The book deals with the frustrations confronting Samuel Turvey and his fellow biologists in trying to save this exotic creature, when none of the authorities in China or the West seem to care.

With its slim pale body and long nose, it was revered as a goddess in ancient Chinese mythology; but has not long been recognised as a distinct species by Western biologists and palaeontologists. Over the past 30 years, however, while it has been accepted as an endangered species, like the panda, it has not captured the attention needed to protect and save it.

It is China’s place as the most rapidly industrialising economy in the world which is making the baiji’s habitat increasingly dangerous. The huge Three Gorges Dam presides over the largest hydro-electric power station in the world, at the top of the stretch of river where the river dolphin has lived ever since it became a distinct species. The project has taken 10 years to build, displacing a million people from a formerly exquisite valley and replacing it with a reservoir 600 kilometres long, and the woods with concrete and brown smog-filled air.

The author uses this as a symbol of human destruction of the natural environment that is causing not only the extinction of this aquatic mammal, but damaging the whole river ecosystem as vast quantities of toxic waste from factories along the banks as well as untreated sewage are poured into it.

The mile-wide river is used for increasing volumes of tankers transporting cargo, and the dolphins’ echo-location sense is upset by the constant noise, leading to the last few getting cut up by propellers. The demand for food is so great that indiscriminate  methods of fishing are used, electrocuting or snaring everything in reach on vicious multi-bladed hooks.

Turvey and his conservation colleagues in China and England attempted to instigate a programme to protect the endangered species by banning some of these practices and providing lanes up the river that were free from cargo ships. But with China’s headlong rush to expand economically, this proved impractical as the political will was lacking. Another method that had successfully captured other endangered species and bred them for release into the wild later was tried for the white dolphins. But this failed too as the only one to survive long enough in captivity did not have a mate to breed with.

Turvey’s frustration and embitterment comes across when his fund-raising efforts are thwarted or undermined. But his personal experiences, when after too many years have passed and successive delays, he finally arrives to conduct a survey of the 1000-mile stretch of river, give a vivid picture of the world we have helped to bring about. He conveys the sickening effect of being in a dying habitat, where the cost of success in globalising world is the cancer of unregulated growth.

Witness to extinction: How we failed to save the Yangtze river dolphin by  Samuel Turvey. £16.99, OUP 2008.

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