December 17, 2006
Written by C.N.
On Thursday, December 14, 2006, the Guardian Unlimited published a story of immense sadness for members of the scientific community and for those who care about conservation. The Baiji, a rare Chinese dolphin that inhabited the Yangtze River, was declared extinct after a six-week hunt failed to find any living specimen. Even if there are one or two living dolphins, a Swiss naturalist who was part of the team declared the Baiji “functionally extinct.”
To be sure, animal extinction is not a phenomenon confined to China or to contemporary times. A quick check of the Encyclopedia Britannica will provide a list of extinct species world over. But the case of the Baiji river dolphin is particularly sad because the scientific community knew of their endangered status, but was unable to affect Chinese policy in the same way it was able to save the Giant Panda.
The Panda has two major benefits: its habitat is easier to protect because of its distance from heavy industry and human activity; and its “cute factor” is a huge asset for zoos world over. Unfortunately, the Baiji did not have these benefits. It was doomed by three things:
1. Its habitat, the Yangtze River, is indispensable to the Chinese economy
2. Unlike the Panda, the Baiji was obscure and did not receive the same level of attention.
3. Keeping dolphins in captivity, let alone breeding them, is not easily done.
Twenty years of rapid economic growth with little or no environmental protection has taken a heavy toll on China’s wildlife. Although international pressure has compelled Beijing into recognizing the gravity of an impeding environmental crisis; conservation still faces tremendous odds. This is especially true when economic interest collides with endangered species, as articulated by the Guardian:
The dolphin, which dates back 20 million years, has been pushed to extinction by severe degradation of its habitat. Increasingly noisy shipping traffic on the Yangtze affected the dolphin’s sonar, while sever pollution and over-fishing diminished food supplies.
The disappearance of the “goddess of the Yangtze” is a sobering reminder to the Chinese government about the extent to which the country’s economic transformation is affecting the environment.
As China gains economic parity with West, so does its environmental problem. Saving China’s environment will require political will and the participation of the people. Let’s hope other species can avoid the same tragic fate as the Baiji.
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Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Chinese River Dolphin “Functionally Extinct”" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2006/12/chinese-river-dolphin-functionally-extinct/> ().
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