I wrote about this two weeks ago, but I just read a moving piece in the New York Times (via CDT) by Robert Pittman, one of the scientists on the six-week expedition that combed the Yangzi for signs of the Chinese River Dolphin (baiji).
Locally, the Yangtze River is in serious trouble; the canary in the coal mine is dead. In addition to baiji, the Yangtze paddlefish is (was) probably the largest freshwater fish in the world (at least 21 feet), and it hasnâ€™t been seen since 2003; the huge Yangtze sturgeon breeds only in tanks now because it has no natural habitat (a very large dam stands between it and its breeding grounds). The whole river ecosystem is going down the tubes in the name of rampant economic development. There is a huge environmental debt accruing on the Yangtze, and baiji was perhaps just the first installment.
The counter argument one hears out of China is that millions of Chinese people still live in poverty. The economic demands of development trump the needs of fish and the sexy megafauna, like dolphins, to which Westerners seem so mawkishly attached. (Must be all those reruns of “Flipper” and class trips to Sea World.)
But Pittman’s scientific reserve breaks down as he describes the baiji not only as a symbol of the perilous environmental condition of China’s waterways, but also as part of a legacy that belongs to all of us regardless of national boundaries:
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.
In related news today, the United States government listed polar bears as ‘threatened,‘ marking the first time “the United States has made a direct link between global warming and the threat to a species.” The bears’ habitat, the ice floes of the arctic, are melting, depriving the bears of their hunting grounds. There has been increasing evidence of cannibalism among the bears as well as several sad reports of bears drowning in the oceans off of the Alaskan coast after they became stranded on shrinking ice floes.
We are losing some of Earth’s greatest natural treasures and too many people seem okay with this. The Bush Administration still refuses to back mandatory controls of carbon dioxide emissions, American patterns of consumption continue to favor convenience over conservation (patterns of consumption that many urban Chinese seem all too willing to emulate), and officials and business interests in China zealously insist on economic growth above all other concerns. The loss of the last few dozen of a blind river dolphin half a world away hardly seems like news here in the United States. But it should be a wake up call for all of us, regardless of where we live.
Cross posted from the Chinese history blog Jottings from the Granite Studio
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.