Dead as a dolphin?

Another animal’s gone extinct. But this time it’s one of our most beloved creatures – a dolphin. Malcolm Tait reports on a species loss that is more than just another statistic

Dead as a dodo. It’s a well-worn phrase and we use it for all sorts of things, although rarely when talking about extinction. We’ll use it to describe someone’s career, perhaps, or a fashion that’s passed its sell-by date. There’s something of the vernacular about it: dead as a dodo – you’re finished, mate.

Perhaps it’s because of the origin of the phrase. Lewis Carroll’s tales of Alice introduced the dodo to a reading public that was largely unfamiliar with the bird, and the phrase was coined soon afterwards. Unsurprising, then, that it should carry about it a hint of whimsy, from an association with Carroll’s fantastical works.

It’s all given the dodo a certain status among extinct creatures. When you consider that an estimated 99.9 per cent of the species that have ever appeared on this planet are now gone forever, then the dodo has done rather well to be one of the most famous of them all. Only known about by the Western world since the end of the 16th century, and extinct just a few decades later, its path crossed our own for a very short time. Yet this idiosyncratic creature, with its huge, ungainly beak, bald expressive face and flightless defencelessness, still stands out as a symbol of that which is lost, destroyed by mankind, the underdog that never stood a chance. Of all the species that have disappeared since then, none have displayed quite the same level of vulnerability and individuality as did the dodo.

None, that is, until now. In December last year, a six-week expedition that had travelled 3,500km up China’s Yangtze River from Yichang, past the Three Gorges Dam and down to the Yangtze Delta, then all the way back again, was completed. The scientists on board had been armed with top-notch optical instruments and underwater microphones, and had one mission in mind: to find as many Yangtze river dolphins as possible. By the time they had made it back to Yichang, their checklist was frighteningly empty. They had not discovered a single individual.

The Yangtze river dolphin, often called the baiji, was known to be low in numbers, and the expedition had feared that they might find only a few dozen individuals. To find none at all was heartbreaking. A creature that had been swimming the waters of the Yangtze for at least 20 million years had come to the end of the line. Sure, there might be one or two individuals left that the researchers had missed, but they won’t be enough to keep the species alive. As 2006 drew to a close, the baiji was declared functionally extinct, and mankind had achieved a new first. We’d killed our first dolphin.

And what a dolphin it was, too. Long of beak, and nearly blind, the baiji navigated the muddy depths of the Yangtze using its powerful sonar, feeding nocturnally, and producing offspring only once every two years. Like only three other dolphin species in the world, it was entirely riparian, and had sustained itself comfortably over the millennia: it is estimated that some 2,000 years ago there were around 5,000 baiji, a number that still held true by the 1950s.

Self-sustaining over the millennia, then crashing to zero in just 50 years. Clearly, this was no natural extinction. Like the dodo before it, the baiji collapsed in just a few short decades due to human pressures – in the dolphin’s case, a combination of factors including vessel strikes as China’s river traffic increased, entanglement in fishing gear, habitat loss and a degree of pollution.

Yet here the comparison with the dodo ends. Whereas the destruction of the bird came about by people who had only just discovered it, and who didn’t realise the implications of what they were doing, the collapse of the baiji beggars belief. No newcomer to mankind, this dolphin: it had been revered in China for at least 2,300 years, and enjoyed protected status, not for conservation reasons, but because it was the stuff of legend.

The traditional story went that the baiji was the reincarnation of a beautiful princess. Forced to marry a man she did not love, she refused, and was drowned by her family, only to re-emerge as this graceful creature of the waters. The baiji became a symbol of peace and prosperity, and was known as the Goddess of the Yangtze. You don’t hunt goddesses, and so the baiji was left alone.

Then, in 1958, China had a remarkable volte face. Its Great Leap Forward, in which communism was embraced and anything approximating to animist religion denounced, was the baiji’s main death sentence. Its mythological status was officially removed, and the hunters moved in for its meat and skin. By the 1980s, the government realised its predecessors’ mistake and slapped conservation orders on the dolphin, but it was too late. Numbers had collapsed, and the vessel strikes, fishing gear and pollution simply finished them off.

Let’s pause for a moment to put this in context. In 1956, two years before China lifted its moratorium on baiji hunting, Gerald Durrell published his seminal book My Family and Other Animals. Many feel it was the first time that the plight of the world’s wildlife, and the impact that we were having on the creatures with which we share the planet, was really driven home to the man in the street, to whom animals were just food and fun. Conservation was introduced into the public domain and within a couple of decades, really took off. By the 1970s, we were saving the whale. In the 1980s, we were worried about elephants and tigers. Rhinos were among the headliners of the 1990s; today, we’re aware of the struggles of so many animals around the planet that it’s sometimes difficult to know where to place our charitable donations.

Yet throughout this time of fear and concern, we’ve managed to hold on to all the headline species. Sure, a few bird species have gone, and the occasional small mammal. Yes, we’ve lost some amphibians and insects, too. But these are the creatures that slip by the layman’s attention – a sad truth, but a truth nonetheless. For years, the man on the Clapham omnibus, or the woman in the Chelsea tractor, has been reading about imminent extinctions of large mammals, nature’s A-listers; yet not a single famous creature has gone.

And now it has. Not just any old large mammal, either, but a representative of one of the world’s favourite families. Dolphins are so beloved that where the society Butterfly Conservation has around 11,000 members in Britain, and the Mammal Society less than half that, the Whale and Dolphin  Conservation Society (WDCS) numbers some 70,000 supporters.

We’re mad for dolphins. Their intelligence and communication skills, combined with a joyful love of freedom and open spaces and topped off with an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile, makes them extremely attractive and apparently empathetic animals. We want to be like them – admiring their strong social groups, the freedom to roam and play – and we love them.

So how on earth could we have killed one of them? How could a nation that once revered a dolphin as a semi-deity allow it to die? And how could the world, with all its growing conservation skills and awareness, fail to stop it happening?

The death of the baiji is more than just another statistic. It can be a symbol of what we are doing that really strikes home in the hearts of the public around the world. Biologically, of course, a dolphin is no different from a frog, or an ant, or an amoeba. But socially, culturally, it is a far more potent icon. We haven’t just nearly killed the tiger, or the elephant, or the rhino – we really have killed a dolphin. Despite the warnings and efforts of WDCS and other conservation bodies, we stood by while it fell.

Will it change us? It must. The baiji represents the difference between the extinction we are now causing, and the mass extinctions that have gone before. When the meteor fell some 65 million years ago, it wiped out a massive chunk of life on earth. Life reshaped itself, of course, and there are some who argue that nature will simply do the same once we’ve ravaged it then died out ourselves. But unlike the meteor, we know what we’re doing. We’re aware that we’re destroying, and with that awareness comes the moral obligation not to destroy.

Because of its family’s fame, the baiji can become the symbol that heightens that awareness, that sticks in the gullet of our collective conscience. We may not have known what we were doing back when we drove the dodo to extinction, but we certainly knew what we were doing to the baiji, every single step of the way.

Dead as a dolphin. Now that’s a phrase with impact.

Malcolm Tait is the editor of WDCS

This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2007

More from this author