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R.I.P Yangtse River Dolphin

R.I.P Yangtse River Dolphin

By Zoltan Fehervari

To the sound of absolute media silence, one of the world's most extraordinary animals has been declared extinct. Zoltan Fehervari takes a look at the sad demise of the Yangtse river dolphin, which has recently slipped away unnoticed.


Yangtse river dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) c.26,000,000 BC to 2006 AD.


As of last week the Yangtse river dolphin, otherwise known as the baiji, was declared officially extinct. It's finally happened and I feel physically sick, but sadly I can't say I'm at all surprised. The signs were everywhere. Chopped up in propellers, drowned in fishing nets, echolocation confused by shipping traffic, choked on human waste. The poor bastard wasn't even given a fighting chance. Near the end some heroic rescue efforts were made, but it seems nothing could stop the baiji from slipping into oblivion. We've missed our last chance to see.... What saddens me the most is how little coverage this received. Did anyone see this on CNN or the even BBC? Surely this should have been a major issue, a cause celebre?!? It was a unique dolphin species for crying out loud, and everyone loves dolphins right?!?!? But no, somehow things just didn't come together this time.

"while in China my attempts to look-up 'baiji' online resulted in an automated net monitor repeatedly throwing me out of the search engine."
The major source of information on the baiji was a BLOG (see URL below) written by conservationists covering their last ditch efforts to find and rescue the last remaining animals. I read this over the past few months with increasing levels of horror and depression as it became all too obvious that the endeavour would end in failure. I was shocked to find that I was the first person to leave a posting on their blog and that was weeks after the effort began. It really astonished me at how few people had even heard of the baiji... But maybe in this shallow, celebrity-obsessed world the gentle baiji will be accorded a certain cachet as being the first cetacean to be driven to extinction directly by human activity.
  
Now it's easy to dismiss this as simply a 'Chinese problem', indeed, that's just what I did on seeing first-hand the relentless exploitation and callous disregard for nature along the Yangtse. Very little money or effort was put into baiji conservation until it was too late and even then finances were paltry. Ironically, most of the funds that did trickle in came from outside of China. Make no mistake; China is no longer a poor country (the Economist recently placed it as one of the largest economies in the world), so this is really no longer an excuse. The Three Gorges Dam was only the final implacable straw for an otherwise tragically embattled species. Sadly, the baiji was probably already damned long before the dam. Official attitudes also didn't help. For instance, while in China my attempts to look-up 'baiji' online resulted in an automated net monitor repeatedly throwing me out of the search engine. In Chinese government circles it seemed that 'baiji' was a taboo word along with 'democracy' and the 'BBC'. Such criticisms, while nevertheless valid, tend to miss the big picture.

The loss of the baiji shames us ALL by our indifference and hypocrisy. After all, development of the First World was characterised by irreparable extinction and deforestation so who are we to stand on our soapboxes? True, but with the benefit of hindsight, newly developing countries should surely learn from past mistakes and there must be a way to progress more gently? Such advice is however facile, because the real issue at the heart of this is greed, desire, and ignorance. This is the fuel that feeds unsustainable growth and we are all guilty of it. In fact doubly so in the West because it's the methods and values of the Market conceived in our own backyards that we've been busy exporting to the rest of the world. These are in large part responsible for the sorry mess we now find ourselves in.
  

"I feel physically sick to have seen something like this happen in our lifetime and you can be sure it won't the last time we see this either."
So what do we learn from this tragic story? Well, there are two basic responses: In the first we could just sink into depression and indolence (to my shame- pretty much what I've been doing) and in the second we could resign ourselves to not being able to prevent any of this and just live profligate, hedonistic lives. We follow either of these paths at our peril because therein lies our doom. There has to be another answer. I don't have any bright ideas yet and what I say will by now surely be passé. For starters we could stop pissing around with trivia be they material or 'spiritual'. We can certainly get by with a lot less 'stuff' in our lives: do we really need that 40' Plasma screen TV or remote controlled Dalek? Educating ourselves about what's going on the world will also help - that way something like the extinction of the baiji won't at least go unnoticed.
(continues below)

The Baiji - Lipotes vexillifer


People should also get exercised by real issues like global warming - the Earth needs our help. The same holds true for didactic religion of all persuasions. We need to somehow find an edifying morality separate from, and unconstrained by the dogma of conventional religion. Individuals should be willing to make sacrifices not for spiritual brownie points or because a coercive god threatens us with hellfire, but because it's for the good of society and the world as a whole. I'm being hopelessly naive and idealistic I know, but maybe that's what it will take to save the world.
  
On a final melancholic note I'd recommend you take a look at http://www.baiji.org/start.html and if hearing a recording of the baiji's plaintive cries doesn't move you to tears then I fear we're all doomed.
  
I feel physically sick to have seen something like this happen in our lifetime and you can be sure it won't the last time we see this either. Even if we rally our efforts we'd better brace ourselves for a very sad and depressing century.
  
                                                                                    
In Memoriam
21st Dec '06


Get more from the Null and meet some new species including puffleg, crossbill and the Pon sifaka.



Your Say:

That's really sad - do we not hear about this on the news because it's not cute and fluffy? A great shame.
James, UK.

Bloody hell this is sad news. I've heard this is the first cetacean to be declared extinct - certainly in modern times. China is industrialising so rapidly the ecological consequences of these changes seem destined to be disastrous. Well I guess that is 'progress' for you. *weep*.
Dozy, Wales.

Society has been and continues to be insensitive to the needs of that which truely gives us life...the Earth. If we want a future for our species on this gorgeous planet then we have to make a choice are we going to continue to be a cancer cell on the earth organism or a beneficial bacteria.
Meg, Texas

Yes, but extinction for the Baiji was a foregone conclusion at least 10 years ago. Next up, Irrawaddy dolphins, the vaquita and probably the N. Atlantic right whale. Sad, but nobody has any answers - how do you put spilt milk back in the bottle?
Jason, Washington.

A sad day not just for the Yangtse River Dolphin, but for the natural world as a whole. Man seems to think he can do as he pleases with the planet. Wrong. How many more species will have to be lost before we cease the wholesale destruction of its biodiversity?
Dave Bowns

I was so angry with the NWO for trying to create a mass human genocide, when, in reality, it may be what is best for us, and the planet as a whole. Makes you think.
Philip


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