Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Farewell, oh Beautiful Baiji

So, the Yangtze River Dolphin is officially the first large vertebrate to become extinct since the Japanese Sea Lion. Not a single specimen of the Baiji, as it was locally known, was found in an intensive six-week search of its habitats, carried out by a team from the Zoological Society of London.

I have to say that the story brought a tear to my eye when I heard it on the radio at lunch. I know, of course, that the Chinese have as much right to develop as we British did when we killed off our resident populations of bears, wolves and wild boar in the the name of progress. But that doesn't make the story any less sad, nor the Baiji's disappearance any less tragic. As Richard Dawkins once wrote in reference to the Thylacine: "It may be true that it was a pest to humans, but humans were a bigger pest to it, and now there are no Thylacines left and a considerable surplus of humans." The development of the Chinese economy, like the development of our own, has lifted millions of people out of poverty; if only it could have been achieved without the loss of the river dolphin.

Nevertheless, there's cause for hope. The Baiji died out, some believe, at the cusp of a 'casual' period, in which humans caused extinctions wholly inadvertantly, due to ignorance and accident. With increasing development comes increasing awareness of environmental issues and the importance of conservation, and no country has proven to be as single-minded in its pursuit of a goal as modern China. Part of the reason for the Baiji's disappearance was because Chairman Mao believed certain local suspicions about the creature were irrational and the way to 'cure' those suspicions was to eradicate the animal. China's current leadership have distanced themselves from Mao in almost every respect, and we can be optimistic that respect for the environment is one of those areas also - there are now 40 panda reserves compared to just 13 twenty years ago, for example. How sad that it will all come too late for the Baiji.

1 comment:

zero_zero_one said...

I recall that an article I read said that perhaps it was too early to call time on the species, and that the status of extinction is normally only given 50 years after the last recorded sighting. Maybe there is still some slim hope for the Yangtze River dolphin...