The Departed

Dot Earth

June 9, 2008, 11:21 pm
By Andrew C. Revkin

How much nature is enough? We may be finding out, species by species, as we whittle away in that slow-drip style. This is just a quick note of farewell to the Caribbean monk seal, not seen since 1952 and given its formal designation as extinct by federal fisheries officials last Friday.

Scientific drawing of the Caribbean monk seal. (Credit: U.S. National Musem)

The other recent departure of a marine mammal came on the other side of the world, in the Yangtze River, where the nearly half billion people in the watershed of that bustling thoroughfare made life impossible for a 20-million-year old dolphin species, known as the baiji.

The Yangtze River dolphin, or baji, is presumed extinct by marine mammal experts. (Credit: Baiji.org)

Robert L. Pitman, an American government biologist who spent years studying the baiji and then searching the emptied river, described the situation facing humanity in this pivotal era in Science Times in December 2006:

Globally, scientists have been warning for some time of an impending anthropogenic mass extinction worldwide. Previous bouts of human-caused extinctions were due mainly to directed take: humans hunting for food. What we are seeing now is probably the first large animal that has ever gone extinct merely as an indirect consequence of human activity: a victim of market forces and our collective lifestyle. Nobody eats baiji and no tourists pay to see it — there were no reasons to take it deliberately, but there was no economic reason to save it, either. It is gone because too many people got too efficient at catching fish in the river and it was incidental bycatch. And it is perhaps a view of the future for much of the rest of the world and an indication that the predicted mass extinction is arriving on schedule.

For the Chinese, I think that losing a half-blind river dolphin and a couple of oversize fish was a fair trade for all the money that is being made there now. China is an economic model envied by most of the rest of the world, and I think that many other (especially third world) countries will be confronted with similar decisions of economic development versus conservation of habitats and animals, and the response will be the same. From now on we will have to choose which animals will be allowed to live on the planet with us, and baiji got cut in the first round. It is a sad day. I know it is their country, but the planet belongs to all of us. We came to say goodbye to baiji, but after its being in the river for 20 million years, we apparently missed it by two years.

Sorry if I got a little emotional here, but the disappearance of an entire family of mammals is an inestimable loss for China and for the world. I think this is a big deal and possibly a turning point for the history of our planet. We are bulldozing the Garden of Eden, and the first large animal has fallen.

Robert L. Pitman, NOAA Fisheries Ecosysem Studies Program

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