Friday, December 15, 2006

So, farewell then... the Yangtze River dolphin.

A sad milestone has been passed in humanity's destruction of planet Earth. For the first time, our activities have caused the extinction of a cetacean. The following is taken from the website of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society:

An expedition to document the last remaining Chinese river dolphins has returned after a six week survey which covered the entire known range of the baiji or Yangtze River dolphin. A team of international scientists using both visual and acoustic monitoring techniques made a full sweep of the area but failed to record one sighting, leading experts to believe that this species is now extinct.

The article goes on to explain what it is we've lost.

The baiji represents a loss not just of a species but a whole family of animals which were endemic to the Yangtze River and evolved separately to other whales and dolphins for over 20 million years. The baiji was described as a ‘living fossil’, remaining as it had, unchanged for at least 3 million years since it first left the sea to swim into the Yangtze River.

With China's booming population and its unregulated economic growth, the baiji has succumbed to pollution, traffic collisions, and heavy fishing using explosives. One wonders what the great poets of ancient China - poets such as Tu Fu and Li Po - would have made of the 'new' Yangtze. I doubt they would have seen much 'progress' in its devastation.

Personally, I knew little about the Yangtze River dolphin; but last year I saw one of its relatives, the Irrawaddy Dolphin, clinging on to life in the Cambodian Mekong. We were filming the last episode of Planet Action, and our task was to draw attention to the plight of a species reduced by pollution and over-fishing to a few dozen individuals.

The Irrawaddy is a shy and elusive dolphin - nothing like its gregarious, salt water cousins. The most you may see of it, on the swirling muddy water, is the melon-shaped head, a puff of water, and a two or three second dive back into its element. This was enough to persuade me that we cannot allow such a creature to die out. The loss would not be purely 'biological': it would be cultural, too.

The people who live, in desperate poverty, alongside the Mekong or 'Mother River', feel a strong emotional bond with the Irrawaddy dolphin. They do not want to harm it. A local legend explains how the species came into being. More and more, local communities depend on eco-tourism that focuses on the dolphins.

If the Irrawaddy dolphin is lost, the Cambodian people lose something of themselves. Likewise, every time humanity allows a species to disappear, it is our humanity that is diminished. For we are creatures of the Earth: subject to the same laws of evolution, and the same certainty of mortality, as every other thing that lives.


Blogger The Barrister Blog said...

Thanks for the story. I've posted it on my blog too ( Like the blog.

6:37 AM  

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