Witness to Extinction by Samuel Turvey

The book “Witness to Extinction: How we Failed to Save the Yangtze River Dolphin” by Samuel Turvey treats an important topic: the decline of our biodiversity. In this case, the disappearance of a river dolphin in the Yangtze River - the baiji. How did it come that the baiji is now considered as possibly extinct? The story is not beautiful and the story will repeat. Just with another species. Please read the book and share the story of the baiji!

Witness to Extinction by Samuel Turvey

Title: Witness to Extinction: How we Failed to Save the Yangtze River Dolphin
Author: Samuel Turvey
Imprint: OUP Oxford
Length: 431 pages
Published: 2009
Language: English


The tragic recognition of the extinction of the Yangtze River Dolphin or baiji in 2007 became a major news story and sent shockwaves around the world. It made a romantic story, for the baiji was a unique and beautiful creature that features in many Chinese legends and folk tales. The Goddess of the Yangtze, as it was known, was also the lone representative of an entire and ancient branch of the Tree of Life. But perhaps the greater tragedy is that its status as one of the world's most threatened mammals had been widely recognized, yet despite wide publicity virtually no international funds became available.

Samuel Turvey here tells the story of the plight of the Yangtze River Dolphin from his unique perspective as a conservation biologist deeply involved in the struggle to save the dolphin. This is both a celebration of a beautiful and remarkable animal that once graced one of China's greatest rivers, its natural history and its role as a cultural symbol; and also a personal, eyewitness account of the failures of policy and the struggle to get funds that led to its tragic demise. It is a true cautionary tale that we must learn from, for there are countless other threatened species that will suffer from the same human mistakes, and whose loss we shall not know until it is too late.

Thoughts about the book

New modern dams. Water pollution. The collapse of fish populations. Fishing methods like gill nets, rolling hooks or electro-fishing. Hunting. Or boat traffic.

I’m sure that I haven’t listed here all the threats a Yangtze River dolphin was exposed to during its life. Here with an emphasis on “was exposed to”. Because Yangtze River dolphins - also known as baijis - might be already extinct. And there is probably no “are exposed to” anymore!

I came across the book “Witness to Extinction: How we Failed to Save the Yangtze River Dolphin” by Samuel Turvey after reading “Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez” by Brooke Bessesen and “Journey of the Pink Dolphins: An Amazon Quest” by Sy Montgomery.

All three cetacean species have something in common. They are or were, respectively, endangered. While the whole conservation situation for the boto or Amazon River dolphin is better when compared to the other two species, the boto is still “endangered” according to the IUCN. Hopefully, the boto will not be in such a plight in the future like the vaquita is now and the baiji was in the past. At least, there might be some vaquitas still alive in the Gulf of California, however, the probability of losing this species in the near future is present. Everything might be already too late for the baiji. There was no confirmed sighting of a baiji in the Yangtze River in the last few years. Interestingly, however, the IUCN lists the baiji still as “critically endangered”.

This book here is exactly about this possibly extinct river dolphin species.

I have to warn all readers before. It is not an optimistic book and we know already the ending.

The baiji is possibly extinct!

But how did it come so far?

Well, in the book by Samuel Turvey you might find an answer to this. It is very complex. And as an outsider very difficult to understand.

Why were there no big campaigns by environmental organizations?

How could it be that a large international organization said that it is financially not worth “trying to save the Yangtze River dolphin”?

There were also numerous workshops and meetings - including talking about the conservation about the baiji. But how did it come that they didn’t find a solution for active (!) conservation efforts? Just talking is not enough!

Why did it become “unfashionable” to save a single species like the baiji in a captive breeding program?

And what about the Chinese people?

I tried to understand why it was not possible to find a solution for the baiji in the Yangtze River dolphin.
As much I tried to understand the whole situation, the book is also about a few people dedicating their lives to the baiji. One person important to mention is Leigh Barrett who said: "Whatever you do, keep hold of your optimism. Please don't become bitter and cynical."

She even gave up her job to completely bring forward her efforts in the conservation of the baijis.

Another important person in the conservation of the baiji is the author of this book who learned by chance more about the baiji and wanted to do something against its disappearance on our planet (thank you for writing the book!).

This dedication of these people was the reason which kept me reading the book! Despite of all the dark prospect!

I was already very into the book about the vaquita because of the dedication of some people. Even though the situation for the vaquita is not good, either, again, some people never give up their hope and do as much as they can to stop the extinction of a species!

Although the book is written in the perspective of a non-Chinese person, I think, I still understand now a little bit more about the difficulties in the conservation of an even charismatic species like the baiji.

In my opinion, the outcry for the baiji - and now for the vaquita - is still too quiet. But why is it like that?
I do not have an answer for this.

But maybe there is still a little bit hope out there. Hope is important to keep going. Especially with respect to our environment.

Maybe there is still anywhere a baiji out there?


Please read the book and share the story of the baiji! The baiji will not be the only and last species on our planet that struggles with its survival. Although the book is not very optimistic, please keep your hope!

Have you heard about the baiji before? There are many similar stories out there. Do you want to share a story? Please let me know in the comments.

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