Witness to Extinction

Book Review: Witness to Extinction.
Samuel Turvey, Oxford University Press, 2008. 210 p. (224 with endnotes and acknowledgments). $29.95. ISBN 978-0-19-954947-4.

By Marty D. Matlock

Witness to Extinction: How We Failed to Save the Yangtze River DolphinWitness to Extinction: How we failed to save the Yangtze River Dolphin, is a compelling narrative of Sam Turvey's personal experience working to save the Goddess of the Yangtze from extinction. The Bai Ji, or white dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer), was a freshwater cetacean indigenous to the Yangtze River, the largest river in Asia. The species was declared extinct in 2007.

In a style that evokes Dian Fossey's Gorillas in the Mist, Turvey weaves natural history, ecology, and politics into a tapestry that illustrates the pattern of human impact across the globe. The Bai Ji, dubbed by many in the conservation field the “aquatic panda,” was an icon of national pride for the Chinese government, a symbol of the prowess of the government in managing the natural heritage of the Yangtze River.

Turvey tells his story in two parts, aptly titled The Beginning and The End. The Beginning, composed of four chapters, provides a crisp natural and human history of the Bai Ji and its habitat, the mighty Yangtze River. The End, told in seven chapters, is where Turvey's story gets personal. He describes personal, institutional, and governmental failures that compounded to relegate this national icon to oblivion. This is a personal narrative, with no pretenses of objectivity. Turvey names the people, institutions, and governments he considers responsible for this conservation failure.

By using this voice, Turvey provides a valuable resource for conservation and restoration professionals to debate very important issues for biodiversity. Turvey describes the attitude against ex situ breeding as institutional cowardice. The organizations that argued against capturing breeding pairs as it became clear in the mid-1990s that the species was in decline were, in Turvey's opinion, more concerned about the perception of failure on their fundraising activities than on saving a species from decline. Many argued, ultimately successfully, that if the species could not survive in its native environment then extinction was the appropriate conclusion.

This debate, whether to focus on intervention to save individual species or on protecting the habitat within which they survive, is informative to the conservation profession. Turvey argues for a pragmatic middle, where species are preserved from extinction through ex situ breeding programs where necessary while the ecosystems from which they are rescued are restored.

He suggests that major conservation organizations became entangled in Chinese nationalistic propaganda; Turvey describes local bureaucrats jockeying for funding from the Chinese government to build a preserve for a species that most believed was extinct already. He describes the launch of the final survey of the Bai Ji as “obscene”, with “…Budweiser beer—one of the expedition's main sponsors—being poured down pyramids of cheap champagne glasses…August [Plufger] was filmed on deck, pretending to survey for the Bai Ji, for some reason scanning the river for the cameras using a laser range-finder instead of binoculars.”

Turvey's contempt for Plufger, the CEO of the Swiss-based Bai Ji Foundation, is clear. Ultimately, Turvey concludes that human ego was the cause of the failure of international conservation organizations to save a species after 25 years of concerted effort.

More instructively, Turvey documents the continual decline of the Yangtze River, a vast and economically vital component of Chinese prosperity. He describes scenes of congestion between shipping barges, fishing fleets, and other river traffic that seem unimaginable in modern times.

Turvey observes the plight of the hydraulic communities that once depended on the fisheries of the Yangtze and whose prosperity is in decline as the river continues to be degraded. Perhaps the most desperate message from the story of the death of the Bai Ji is that the Yangtze River itself is dying.

Book Review: Witness to Extinction.
Source: Journal of Environmental Quality  2010 39:758-758

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