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Witness to Extinction: How We Failed to Save the Yangtze River Dolphin Paperback – October 15, 2009

5 out of 5 stars 6 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Turvey, a conservation biologist with the Zoological Society of London, was a researcher and lead author of the 2006 scientific report that found that the baiji-a pearly-white freshwater dolphin formerly endemic to China's Yangtze River-were probably extinct. This book chronicles the last-ditch efforts he and others took to save them. Industrialization in China has had incredible ecological costs; the Yangtze is not only a superhighway of ship traffic, but a receptacle for continuous discharges of raw sewage and toxic industrial effluents, and the baiji are just one of many species to suffer rapid declines (shad, sturgeon, paddlefish, aquatic birds). Among human inhabitants on the Yangtze basin, dysentery and intestinal cancers are already epidemic. Though grim, Turvey's work is also a primer on the science, politics and ethos of conservation, including case histories of successful recovery programs (e.g., the California Condor). Withering in his criticism of the Chinese bureaucracy, the rivalries between competing research institutes, the reluctance of outside scientists to become involved, and the frequently self-serving machinations of environmental activists, Turvey's book is a harsh cautionary tale that's honest and realistic about what's needed to save species facing extinction.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Zoologist Turvey published a scientific paper in 2007 concluding that the Yangtze River dolphin has become extinct; this anguished chronicle expands on his last-ditch campaign to avert the mammal’s oblivion. As background to his involvement, Turvey recounts the creature’s role in Chinese folk stories, its scientific classification as Lipotes vexillifer in 1918, and estimates of its population. As Chinese zoologists resumed work after the Cultural Revolution, they noted a decline in numbers attributable to industrial degradation of the Yangtze River environment and initiated a captive breeding program. Turvey comments skeptically about the quality of the Chinese program, whose lack of success in the face of imminent extinction mobilized him to impassioned action. In biting terms, Turvey indicts the financial backer of his enterprise as an undependable publicity seeker, and scores, too, a perceived indifference to his grant applications from well-known international conservation groups. Surmounting obstacles, Turvey succeeds in launching his expedition on the Yangtze, a voyage of demoralizing discovery that the dolphins have vanished. Turvey’s work of warning should sting the community of endangered-species organizations. --Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Download the first chapter of Witness to Extinction: How We Failed to Save the Yangtze River Dolphin [PDF].

Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (October 15, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199549486
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199549481
  • Product Dimensions: 7.6 x 0.7 x 5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #326,450 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Knowing the outcome of this sad story before you read it makes it hard to bear at times, but it is necessary to understand what conservation entails and how easily it seems to get lead astray. This in a very informative book- not only for our sad loss of this particular species but for conservation of endangered species in general. It made me appreciate just how much it takes to persuade people and organizations to do what I always thought they were meant to do. For example large conservation organizations rejecting the Yangtze River Dolphin's applications for funding because it was too risky, in other words it was already critically endangered. This amazed me, I always assumed that critically endangered animals were conservation organization's top priority. The author, who was involved in the last attempts to save the dolphin and most recent baiji survey, is extremely honest and straight forward. This book outlines many details that are important to the survival of endangered animals and ultimately the survival of our planet. Read this book, not for a fun read, but to enlighten and educate yourself. You will be glad you did.
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Format: Hardcover
"The baiji is gone, and with it we have lost 20 million years of unique evolution, an entire mammal family, the top predator of the Yangzte ecosystem, the reincarnation of a drowned princess - and one the most enigmatic and beautiful creatures on earth."

Samuel Turvey's detailed account of the entire history of the Baiji, up to untimely extinction (probably in 2006), is a lively, well-written account - an engaging piece of nature and travel writing - but, more importantly, a good summation of all that can go wrong when proper and timely efforts are not made to conserve a critically endangered species. With the historical lack of understanding of conservation in China (and the pressure of development), the mistakes made there are tragic, if understandable.

However, Turvey makes clear that what was needed was repeated time and again by scientists and conservationists at workshops and conferences and in journal papers, official reports and the popular press, but this information was never put into practice. Turvey puts the reader right on the spot at each step of the way, revealing many of the personalities and the dying environment in which the Baiji lived. The relentless threats (including dams, long-line fishing and pollution), political difficulties between countries and even research centres, human-wildlife conflicts, lack of understanding (including mistreatment of captured specimens and failure to attempt a breeding programme) are recounted in Turvey's lively observational style.

Perhaps the image that remains longest is of Qi Qi, a Baiji resident at the Institute of Hydrobiology in Wuhan for 22 years - "footage of Qi Qi swimming round and round his concrete pool played to the soundtrack of a Chinese rendition of 'Que Sera Sera'. It was too unintentionally and horribly poignant for words."
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I loved this book. I think I took over twenty pages of notes on it. Turvey, of course, talks about why the baiji is now - at the very least - "functionally extinct", which was the result of fishing practices (entanglement in fixed nets and rolling hook lines, as well as something called "electrofishing"), centuries of directed hunting, ship strikes, and pollution - the Three Gorges Dam, which news sources loved to cite as one of the main reasons for the baiji's decline, was evidently built too late to have any real effect on the disappearance of the baiji. He also describes the attempts to create semi-natural reserves and a captive breeding program (both of which failed miserably), compares the baiji's plight with other species (e.g. condors, some bird species in Hawaii and New Zealand, etc.), and includes an entire chapter on the 2006 expedition he took part in to survey the length of the Yangtze - which didn't find a single baiji, unfortunately. Turvey is bluntly honest about how incompetent many of the Chinese researchers were (they tried to feed Qi Qi, a captive baiji, fish-shaped food before even thinking to give him actual fish) and how lazy and hypocritical the rest of the world was to helping save the baiji (several conservation groups refused to help fund the 2006 survey, while the rich Swiss guy that actually did help fund it tried to short-change everyone). He ends the book by visiting one of the last individuals of some turtle species in a zoo. It, too, will probably go the way of the baiji.
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