09 August, 2007

bye bye baiji

After failing to find any sign of the species during an intensive six-week survey, a team of researchers has declared the Baiji, or Yangtze River Dolphin, to be extinct. This marks the first time in over fifty years that a large vertebrate has been wiped out as a direct cause of human activity, and the fourth time in about 500 years that an entire evolutionary branch of mammals has become extinct.

Baiji were one of only four species of freshwater dolphin

Traditionally considered the "Goddess of the Yangtze", early folk-tales described Baiji as the reincarnation of a drowned Princess. The dolphins were a treasured - and protected - national symbol of peace and prosperity.

From the UK's Guardian:
In Mao's Great Leap Forward, the overthrowing of idols saw their protection lifted and they were hunted for food and their skin. ... Conservationists described the extinction as a "shocking tragedy" yesterday, caused not by active persecution but accidentally and carelessly through a combination of factors including unsustainable fishing and mass shipping.
Numbering in the thousands before China's industrialisation, the Baiji population had dropped to an estimated thirteen by 1999, at which time it was declared the most endangered species in the world. The illegal (though widely practised) technique of electric fishing - along with habitat destruction, including the building of the Three Gorges Dam - undermined efforts to conserve and restore the dolphin population.

China's Yangtze River

I've never been a flag-waving "Save The Whales" type, but I find this story so very sad (although I suppose it's not altogether surprising, looking at pictures of what's become of the Baiji's former home). Everywhere you look, environmental issues are increasingly accepted as a necessary concern going into the future. And yet it seems, particularly to governments like China's, the welfare of our planet - and that of the creatures with whom we share it - is ultimately less important than the rumbling train of economic progress. I'm scared that the powers-that-be won't begin to take environmental conservation seriously until it begins to affect their own back pockets. And I'm scared that, by then, it may be too late.

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