One of the great tragedies in modern memory is the extinction of the Yangtze Dolphin.
Indeed, it is something about which mankind should be ashamed.
The Yangtze Dolphin is the first large animal in 50 years to be driven from the planet, and only the fourth entire mammal family in 500 years to be destroyed. What makes it even more devastating is that it is entirely our fault.
Having lived on the planet for 20 million years, time of death was called on Wednesday 8th August with the dolphin officially declared extinct by a report in the journal of the Royal Society, Biology Letters. It is the first species of cetacean (whale, dolphin or porpoise) to be killed off by human activity.
The Yangtze Dolphin was no ordinary dolphin, and the extinction was not of the kind that occurs throughout the natural course of evolution. The Yangtze Dolphin is a freshwater dolphin that separated from other species millions of years ago, and had evolved so distinctly that it qualified as a mammal family in its own right.
The extinction is a dangerous warning. An astounding 10 percent of the world’s population – 600 million people – live in the Yangtze basin. Human activity in the region, including shipping and fishing, is to blame for the dolphin's demise. Container ships and the nets of fishermen have killed off the dolphin, otherwise known as baiji or white-fin. The dangerous fact is that the Yangtze has lost its top predator and the ecosystem is in a state of collapse. The collapse of the Yangtze ecosystem could effect the welfare and livelihoods of these 600 million people.
The Yangtze is a fast flowing river with many unique species. The Chinese alligator, the finless porpoise and the Chinese paddlefish – not seen since 2003 – are also on the brink of extinction.
The extinction notice has come after an intensive six-week search by an international team of marine biologists in December 2006. The last dolphin in a zoo, Qi Qi, lived in the Yangtze port of Wuhan but died of old age in 2002 at 22 years old. Unfortunately, the dolphins never bred in captivity. During the expedition, the scientists counted one large freight vessel every 800m. These container ships destroyed any chance the Dolphin had of navigating by sonar and it ran the risk of being hit by propellers.
The biggest threat came from nets and hooks used by fishermen. The dolphins became entangled or lacerated. Additionally, pollution from the construction of the Three Gorges Dam killed off much of their food source.
Is it the first large animal to become extinct in 50 years. The Caribbean monk seal was last seen in 1952. The three previous mammal families to be killed off are the giant lemurs of Madagascar, the island shrews of the West Indies, and the Thylacine (Tasmanian tiger). Perhaps more famously, the Dodo – a bird – has also recently been wiped from the Earth.
Humans have not of recent times had a great impact on Dolphins. Recently, a crew of Brazilian fishermen was captured on video killing 83 dolphins.
The complete destruction of this unique and high-order animal is more than a complete and utter tragedy, it is a disgrace and something in which we should be ashamed. As an Australian, I am certainly not jumping on my high horse, as Australia does not have a great record in this regard - the Thylacine and indigenous megafauna were killed off mainly by human activity. However, whilst the West has made many many mistakes and sounds hypocritical denouncing mistakes by the developing world, China is no longer a poor country. The development and destruction of the Yangtze represents the massive growth of the Chinese economy, and its terrible after-effects in the same way as deforested America or massively mined Western Australia. One can only hope that the sad loss of the baiji is a reminder to everyone of the destructive environmental events that have occurred in the past, and are very apparently still happening.
A very nice and poignant take on the matter is at Null Hypothesis
The mp3 for this podcast can be found here