Home Conservation Reviews Book Reviews Witness to Extinction: How We Failed to Save the Yangtze River Dolphin


Witness to Extinction: How We Failed to Save the Yangtze River Dolphin

August 2009: All that’s left on stage are the commemorative baiji statues. As for the baiji itself…it looks like it is the only thing not made in China anymore. Poor old Baiji. You deserved better. They stay with you – these words – so does the book and all that it signifies.


Encapsulated in its simple yet striking title, Witness to Extinction is a terrifying, powerful, searing and insightful story of how man achieved the dubious distinction of decimating the first dolphin species from the face of the Earth. And, how with it, we have lost an entire mammalian family, the Lipotidae and 20 million years of evolution.


The book starts with the discovery of this species, an exploration of its natural history and biological significance and the mysticism in which it remained shrouded until its extinction. The Yangtze river dolphin was believed to be a reincarnation of a beautiful princess, a symbol of peace and prosperity, and was known as the Goddess of the Yangtze; yet, this did not help protect the species.


China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ and race to supremacy reduced the baiji’s habitat to a toxic, cacophonous superhighway exacerbated by the fact that “there was simply no determination to make things happen on the part of the Chinese government.” It failed on so many counts – it did nothing to stop overfishing, accidental catches and the use of dynamite that all added up to the animals’ decline. However, the author writes that we cannot lay all the blame on China. The baiji was lost due to a lack of concerted, motivated action and the onus of this rests with the international community as well. ” No one ever really tried,” mourns Turvey going on to term the extinction as “a travesty not a tragedy.”


The book also draws attention to our other shameful failures – like the huai, a bird that went extinct in the early 19th century and another Hawaiian bird called the po’ouli. Both were lost because of indeterminate delays in taking decisive action. On the other hand, he points out, that there are lessons to be learnt from the species pulled back from the brink such as the Mauritius Kestral and the Chatham Island Black Robin.


He also details the heartbreaking survey that he, along with his partner Leigh, undertook along the Yangtze. The team travelled no less than 3,500 km. from Yichang, past the Three Gorges Dam and down to the Yangtze Delta and then all the way back again in a fruitless search for hope.


This isn’t the first time we have lost a species to our apathy, and self-serving games. And it isn’t the last time, either. It all sounds horribly familiar – huge funds in defunct, apathetic hands, games played
for the benefit of the gallery. We continue the macabre dance of death, only the central player, the species, may be different.


Witness to Extinction is a beautifully-crafted poignant tale of the doomed dolphin; that makes no apologies, minces no words and spares no feelings. It is a tale that needed to be told, a catastrophe that had to be recorded. Those who believe that the Bengal tiger will not meet a similar fate even though we ignore the pressing problems of poaching and habitat destruction are living in a fool’s paradise.


“The clock cannot be turned back, the baiji is lost forever, but,” says Turvey, “Let its epitaph be that it may help other species to be saved from the manifold mistakes that were made time and again in this pathetic tale.” There is a lesson in the book for all of us, citizens of Planet Earth. Read the book – so that such a tragedy is never repeated again.


By Samuel Turvey, Published by Oxford University Press,
Hardcover, 256 pages,
Price: U.S. $29.95


Reviewed by Prerna Singh Bindra


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