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The baiji, known in the English-speaking world as the Yangtze River Dolphin, is finally extinct. It is sad that a creature that shared our planet with us and our ancestors for the past twenty million years has disappeared. It is true that humans played a role in the extinction of this species, but do we really need to blame ourselves alone?

Lipotes vexillifer first appeared in the Chang Jiang river, also known as the Yangtze, around twenty million years ago. The earliest scientific survey of the baiji population was done in the 1950s, and the number was pegged at around 6000. Around 1960, China underwent what was termed by Mao and his men as the 'Great Leap Forward', which was the period when socialism was forced onto the common man, a precursor to the 'Cultural Revolution'. Until then, the baiji was a venerated symbol in Chinese culture. The 'Great Leap Forward' crushed symbolism, including that of the dolphin. Fishermen started hunting the baiji, and the population started dwindling. Later, during the rapid industrialization of China, effluents were pumped into the Yangtze, which further accelerated the decline of the baiji population, culminating in the extinction of the species.

But was the extinction of the Yangtze River Dolphin entirely due to human activity? As the statistics from the 1950s shows, the number of dolphins before the decline in population was as low as 6000. For a river which is over 6000 kilometres long, one dolphin per kilometer length of the river seems to be uncomfortably low. Comparatively, the elephant, which is categorized as an endangered species by the IUCN Red List, is around 500,000 in number. The baiji, for all we know, was probably on the way out of Nature's list of selected species.

Environmentalism denounces extinction as an unnatural event that should not happen, much like the Church denouncing homosexuality. Their idea is far from the truth. A good example are the dinosaurs, a famously extinct group of species. Billions of species have appeared and disappeared from the face of the Earth without any help from man. On the other hand, it is true that a very small fraction of our planet's flora and fauna has become extinct due to human activity. But how does one differentiate between the two? Should we spend money and time on conserving a species which is becoming extinct due to natural selection? Except for a few things like mass and energy, conservation is unnatural; change is what is natural to the universe.

Whether we like it or not, the future of the planet's animals is in the zoo, or a 'wildlife sanctuary' which is just an extended zoo. In the case of animals that are bound to become critically endangered or extinct, it might just be in a genetic zoo – a vial of DNA in a laboratory freezer.

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About Icarus

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Excellent piece. Too bad it took me this long to notice it. “Animal rights” shuld be forced to read it and learn it by heart.

    I will make one observation for you to ponder. You mention that until the “great leap forward” under Mao’s murderers, the baiji was venerated in Chinese culture – and that there were only 6,000 of along the length of the Yang Tze.

    Did you ever wonder why the baiji was venerated? Could it been in recognition of its rarity?

  • SonnyD

    Ruvy: Or could it have been in recognition of its intelligence?

  • Thank you for the appreciation, Ruvy! I don’t know how correct this piece of information is: When the oldest Chinese dictionary, the Ěryǎ, was compiled with báijìtún as one of the entries, the estimate of the population was only about 5000. So you may well be right.

    Thank you for your interest, SonnyD!