Monday, 12 January 2009

Witness to Extinction – Samuel Turvey ****

Subtitled ‘how we failed to save the Yangtze River Dolphin’ this is the sad tale of the disappearance of the baiji, the pointy-nosed white dolphin of China’s Yangtze river. It’s a moving tale and told from personal involvement by Samuel Turvey, who worked for years on the attempt to save the baiji without ever managing to see one alive. In fact, but for one significant failing this is a very impressive five star book that treads that fine line between personal story and scientific discovery extremely well.
I’ll come back to that failing in a moment, but first let’s consider the good side. Turvey describes the practical difficulties of working in China, the complexities of organizing a conservation project and the life and times of the baiji from venerated (though occasionally eaten) animal to accidental victim of the fallout from human activity on that bustling river. It wasn’t, it seems, one problem, but a combination of many factors that doomed the baiji. Frequent heavy shipping noises practically blinds the animal by wrecking its sonar echo location. Illegal fishing with many-hooked lines ripped horrific cuts into the animals, and nets that drown them littered the river. Pollution poured into the river from human waste and many factories. It all conspired to make the environment of what seems quite a delicate animal practically uninhabitable.
Equally fascinating is Turvey’s exploration of the conservation world. We are horrified by the incompetence of some of the Chinese attempts to save the baiji – several die in captivity after attempts to feed them on bread, fruit and practically anything but the obvious fish that is their natural diet. Then there are the conservation purists who repeatedly waste time by arguing that it’s not acceptable to remove animals to a reserve – they have to be preserved in their original environment, even though this will only be possible when large stretches of the Yangtze are cleaned up: impractical in the timescale the animal had left to live.
Perhaps worst of all was the sheer bureaucratic incompetence of those involved, who seemed capable of organizing conference after conference, flying academics across the world, but not of making anything practical happen. Sadly this all too often seems to be the case when academics become involved in practical work. I remember back in the early 1990s, when working for an airline, being involved in a joint EU project with academia to develop a new check-in system. The academics’ first line of attack at one of many meetings was ‘let’s design a new computer terminal from scratch.’ The professionals thought this ridiculous – we would just buy PCs and get on with it. In the end, the project had to be abandoned and we did it ourselves. This academic tendency to ignore pragmatism and insist on getting it just right is great for getting good scientific results, but is useless for practical solutions: arguably the baiji would have done better without the academics involved. It’s a sad and gripping story.
The only reason the book doesn’t get five stars is that, as presented here it’s little more than a long magazine article that has been filled out to make a book. It’s a slim volume (I’ve nothing against that – I like slim volumes), but even within that it says the same thing over and over again. There certainly is a book in here, but it could have done with a combination of heavier editing and additional material.
Even so this is an excellent book that clearly identifies what’s wrong, what’s difficult and what’s possible for the future in conservation of rare animals – and acts as an effective farewell to these remarkable river creatures.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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