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Book Review: Witness to Extinction – How We Failed to Save the Yangtze River Dolphin by Samuel Turvey

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In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, the dolphins disappear suddenly from the earth leaving only a cryptic message: “So long, and thanks for all of the fish.” Should Qi Qi, one of the last ever Yangtze river dolphins, have been able to leave a message before his sad death after decades of life in a sterile, small concrete tank, it might well have been a variant of that: “So long, and thanks for nothing.”

This dolphin species, indeed this whole mammalian family, the Lipotidae, which had existed for around 21.5 million years, is now extinct. The story of how that was allowed to happen is told by the conservation biologist Samuel Turvey, in Witness to Extinction: How We Failed to Save the Yangtze River Dolphin.

It is a story from which almost no one, except Turvey himself and a handful of other individuals, emerges well. No one knows, and no one probably will ever now know, exactly what killed the baiji (its Chinese name). It might have been the hideous pollution of the river; it might have been the illegal and vicious fishing methods in regular use; it might have been the river’s use as a major transport highway that made it a cacophonous obstacle course of deadly propellers. Probably it was a combination of all of these things.

The Chinese government was culpable, certainly. It never made any serious effort to address these issues (which clearly would be a mammoth undertaking), and it also failed to develop a safe refuge area in which the species might have been preserved. Yet this, as Turvey shows, is a developing world government in a country with no tradition at all of conservation, so that is perhaps understandable, if not excusable.

But clearly on this account even greater opprobrium should be laid at the feet of the international conservation organisations and prominent experts, who might have been expected to throw every conceivable resource at preserving this beautiful, charismatic, important species. Instead, Turvey finds, they are handicapped by a fear of failure, by an impractical ideology, and by a simple failure to face the facts.

That ideology comes down to a persistent belief that species should be preserved by preserving their habitat, not captive breeding programmes. Of course that’s a fine ideal, but clearly also sometimes — particularly in developing countries, and increasingly in a climate-changed world – that is going to be impossible.

Turvey, in partnership with one other individual, Leigh Barrett, wrenched together enough money to create the starting point for what might have been a captive breeding programme. But sadly, when the careful scientific survey that they arranged was carried out in 2007, there were no baiji left.

Now, the only real memory of the baiji, what will give it a faint, ghostlike existence, is this book, which tells as much as will ever be known of its complete story: how the Chinese traditionally regarded it as a tragic maiden transformed into this beautiful, graceful creature, revered as a goddess; how ancient writers reported how it was used by boat people as a warning of danger; and how it was brought to scientific recognition by a 17-year-old son of a missionary (inevitably pictured here with one he shot). 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.

But this is a tale about much more than just the baiji. Turvey is a conservation specialist (and the reader can only admire him for producing such a critical book that can hardly be career-enhancing in a field not exactly overflowing with jobs). This slim book also amounts to a primer of the success and failures in species conservation in the past couple of centuries.

Among the horrors: Stellar’s sea cow, discovered in profusion in 1741 and extinct just 27 years later; the beautiful and mysterious (the male and female had entirely different beaks) New Zealand huia (and member of the wattlebird family), which died out in about 1907 despite decades of discussion about creating a refuge for it; and also in New Zealand, the loss from Big South Cape Island of the endemic bush wren, Stewart Island snipe, and greater short-tailed bat. Turvey explains how bad scientific ideology was for them, too.

The theory of the time was that no predators would wipe out a prey species, since they’d be left without food themselves – so when rats got to the island where they’d never been before, the whole thing was “left to nature”, ignoring the fact that the predators had many food sources available to them, so could readily wipe out vulnerable prey.

Among the successes: the Mauritius kestrel – now with more than 800 wild birds, thought to be all descended from one breeding pair in 1974; the Chatham Island black robin, with five birds in 1980, now up to almost 300; Pere David’s deer (a Chinese species saved in Europe and now returned to the semi-wild in its homeland).

Yet even more than the story of species conservation, this is a cautionary tale for all efforts of conservation. The combination of expressions of concern and goodwill, lots of meetings, with zero action has a nasty similarity to what’s being done about the incredibly pressing issue of climate change, which threatens the whole of life on earth. When a leading expert says we’ve four years to save the planet, in the same week that the British government approves the third runway at Heathrow, Turvey’s work is a cautionary tale that needs to be read, and understood as a warning of how humans can fail to act even at the eleventh hour of a crisis, when the approach of disaster is entirely clear.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • Cat

    …btw, the expedition took place in 2006 and was not arranged by S. Turvey and L. Barrett alone.