Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#StevesLibrary:Witness to Extinction

Now, this is a book that I’ve been wanting to read for quite some time. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to secure a copy of my own due to copies being prohibitively expensive (I’m not sure why). Thankfully however, my university library has a copy so I was finally able to read Witness to Extinction. It’s a book that I wouldn’t suggest everyone reads as it is quite depressing (which can be inferred by the title) and documents the extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin or baiji. As a species, we know very little about them which is evident by the fact that they weren’t recognised by science until 1918. One of the biggest problems with the conservation of the baiji has been the extreme levels of development seen throughout China in the 20th Century, particularly along the Yangtze where this species was endemic (it is now likely extinct).

Samuel Turvey provides a chilling account of the clashes between non-governmental organisations, governmental organisations and scientists which led to this species slowly slipping away without anyone noticing. To me, two of the biggest problems is that of language and diplomacy. Turvey explains that the western definition of conservation and that held by China, are two very different things. There is of course the issues of trust as well, Over the past few decades China has been hostile to western researchers for a number of reasons, which to me is a hang-up from the Cold War. I see their lack of willing to cooperate as a sign of a potential weakness, one which they do not wish their citizens to see. There are also the issues caused by the international cetacean community not having a clear consensus on the conservation status of the baiji, which hampered monitoring efforts despite everyone’s best efforts and well intentioned motives.

To me, we should use the extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin as an example in how to not undertake conservation. Turvey and colleagues tried desperately to secure funds to save the species, a number of organisations turned them down as they saw it as a lost cause. As Turvey points out, if this same mentality was applied to other species then we’d have far fewer conservation success stories to celebrate. As someone who wishes to pursue a further career in conservation, this makes no sense and is a sign that things need to change. Whilst Witness to Extinction is a tantalising read, I’m not entirely sure I was ready for it’s raw dose of reality. It’s very similar to Spix’s Macaw, which I read recently in that a species has been plunged to extinction due to a clash of egos and governments. The only difference is that a captive breeding program has been established for the Spix’s macaw, whereas this was never achieved for the baiji.

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