I wonder if rivers are so much in our consciousness right now because we feel in need of forgiveness or forgetfulness. There are Alice Oswald’s celebrated poems, this dreary television series, this pensive review by Ian Sinclair of Peter Ackroyd’s Thames book, and of course our recent buried river walk. For months I’ve meant to blog about Samuel Turvey’s book, How we failed to save the Yantze River Dolphin. Perhaps the story’s tragedy made me resist repeating it here. The dolphin, or Baiji, was a pale, long-beaked mammal celebrated in Chinese legends and driven to exintction over the past one hundred years. Turvey took part in the comprehensive river survey of 2006 that failed to find a single Baiji: this book’s climax is in unbroken absence.
Turvey explains that over-fishing decimated the dolphin population, especially in recent years rolling hook lines set for fish but tearing the dolphins by ‘accident’ and, even more disturbing, electro-charge fishing. This tactic uses bolts of electricity sent into the water, killing everything within a 20 metre range of the charge and dragged through the water on boats by ‘fishermen’ who simply scoop the dead creatures who float to the surface. On top of this the Yangtze is a furious motorway for ships, who fill the water with their noise. In the 1980s novelist and environmentalist Douglas Adams described listening to the water through a microphone: ‘what we heard was a sustained shrieking blast of pure white noise, in which nothing could be distinguished at all.’ Since then boats have got bigger, louder and more numerous. The river dolphins navigate by echolocation. Many of the last Baiji, blinded by our noise, died on ship propellers they couldn’t locate.
The book is most powerful in its frustration with the different groups who delayed conservation attempts and prevaricated fatally. The heaviest criticism attacks international scientists and environmental organisations who Turvey claims gave up on the dolphins too soon and never acted resolutely, despite apparent willingness to use the dolphin now as the new, charismatic face of extinction.
It’s an angry, expert, open-eyed book about one of the most terrible events taking place in the world today, the anthropogenic extinction. Looking at the world’s great rivers today – the Yangtze, the Nile, the Jordan, the Ganges, the Amazon – do any still offer forgiveness?