February 23, 2010
Even megafauna can be quickly forgotten: the baiji and shifting baselines
Lead author of the study, Dr. Samuel Turvey, was a member of the original expedition in 2006. He returned to the Yangtze in 2008 to interview locals about their knowledge of the baiji and other vanishing megafauna in the river, including the Chinese paddlefish, one of the world's largest freshwater fish. In these interviews Turvey and his team found clear evidence of 'shifting baselines': where humans lose track of even large changes to their environment, such as the loss of a top predator like the baiji.
The baiji, once known as 'The Goddess of the Yangtze'. Photo by: Wang Ding.
In other words, a community today may see an ecosystem as 'pristine' or 'complete', which their grandparents would view as hopelessly degraded. In turn what the current generation sees as a degraded environment, the next generation will see as 'natural'. The shifting baseline theory is relatively new—first appearing in 1995—and so it has not been widely examined in the field.
Turvey and his team felt that the Yangtze River, one of the world's most degraded freshwater habitats, would provide a more-than-suitable place to test the theory in the field. But even they were surprised by the extent to which once-important species were forgotten.
"Our data from the Yangtze shows that, in certain cultural environments at least, local communities will immediately start to forget about the existence of even large, charismatic species as soon as these species stop being encountered on a fairly regular basis," explains Turvey.
Yangtze fisherman. Photo by: Samuel Turvey/Leigh Barrett.
"Younger informants were less likely to know what either species was, despite being prompted with photographic cue cards, appropriate local names, and verbal descriptions," the authors write. For example, over 70 percent of participants who had begun fishing after 1996 had never even heard of a Chinese paddlefish and 23 percent of these had not heard of the baiji.
"Often we would interview old fishermen who regaled us with stories about the best way to catch paddlefish with long-lines, or told us recipes about how to cook a baiji and what it tasted like, and then we would talk to a 30- or 40-year old fisherman sitting a couple of meters away in the same fishing village who had absolutely no idea what these species were or what we were talking about," Turvey told mongabay.com, adding that, "it is particularly surprising because paddlefish (the largest freshwater fish in the world!) used to be culturally and economically important until the 1980s, and the baiji was the focus of myths and legends across the Yangtze region."
Turvey believes their findings have large significance for conservation efforts in China and beyond.
The study shows that "although local ecological knowledge is a highly important source of information for making conservation decisions and recommendations, there are also major problems with relying solely on information provided by local people when trying to reconstruct past changes to the environment," he says.
However, he also pointed out a possible upside to the research: "if communities forget about vanishing species very quickly, then maybe our findings could also suggest that reports of supposedly extinct species might turn out to be true."
The other Yangtze victim: the Chinese paddlefish
Interviewing fishermen. Photo by: Samuel Turvey/Leigh Barrett.
Less is known about the state of one of the Yangtze river's other big inhabitants: the Chinese paddlefish. The massive fish has not been the target of conservation efforts or publicity campaigns like the baiji, despite its importance to local fishermen as a food source. The Chinese paddlefish wasn't only important regionally, but globally as it is considered by many to be the world's largest freshwater fish with some individuals recorded at seven meters long.
The Chinese paddlefish began to decline precipitously in the 1970s due to overfishing; the construction of several major dams added to its problems, and in the 1980s the population collapsed. While the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) hasn't evaluated the Chinese paddlefish population since 1996, a recent local survey failed to find a single individual. Some now believe the species, like the baiji, is either extinct or very soon will be.
"I have to say that sadly I don’t hold out much hope for the survival of the paddlefish, even in the short-term," explains Turvey. "Although it’s possible that there might still be a tiny remnant population of paddlefish left in the Yangtze, any survivors downstream of the Gezhouba and Three Gorges dams are cut off from their spawning grounds, so they cannot reproduce. Fishing efforts and the wider-scale industrialization of the Yangtze are also continuing to intensify, in particular through an increase in destructive electro-fishing."
Turvey says that the world has let that species go without even a whimper.
"It must also be recognized that, shamefully, there has been extremely little conservation interest ever paid to this magnificent species; at least the baiji was the focus of a lot of conservation discussion, whereas the plight of the paddlefish didn’t even receive that level of recognition."
This fact alone probably explains why the Chinese paddlefish has been forgotten even quicker than the baiji.
The future of the Yangtze ecosystem: or is there one?
Reeve's shad was a commercial fish in the Yangtze until its population collapsed from overfishing. Photo by: Samuel Turvey/Leigh Barrett.
"The Yangtze ecosystem—a vast river drainage once home to hundreds of unique endemic species—is now undeniably one of the world's most damaged, degraded habitats, and it is extremely depressing to try to carry out conservation projects there," says Turvey. "The problem is especially acute because the region continues to experience tremendous industrial development associated with China’s escalating economic growth, and it is also home to a huge number of low-income communities that depend upon the river for resources and livelihoods."
One year after the baiji was declared likely extinct, a report by China's official State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) found that 30 percent of the Yangtze river's tributaries are "seriously polluted" while 600 kilometers of the river's water is in "critical condition". Yet, development continues: China is currently proposing building another dam on the river, which according to researchers would impact the river's only fish reserve and one of the last places where the Chinese paddlefish is thought to survive.
The degradation of the river and the loss of species has also impacted the region's fishermen. In their survey, Turvey and his team found that over 90 percent of the fishermen didn't want their children to become fishermen. Important commercial species, such as Reeves' shad and the Yangtze pufferfish, have both undergone population collapses. According to SEPA the river's annual harvest of fish has dropped 77 percent from the 1950s to the 1990s, leaving fishermen struggling to make a living and resorting to more drastic methods, such as electro-fishing.
"Under such conditions, it is often hard to see how conservation successes can be achieved—is it just a case of banging your head against a wall as you watch species slide irreversibly towards extinction? But how can we allow ourselves to ignore this kind of environmental problem?" asks Turvey.
Fisherman showing off nets. Photo by: Samuel Turvey/Leigh Barrett.
"As for many of the Yangtze’s other threatened species, unfortunately very little is still known even about their status or necessary conservation measures," Turvey says. For example, the Critically Endangered Yangtze sturgeon hasn't been assessed by the IUCN for over a decade.
In the end 'shifting baselines' appears to mean that not only a single species will be lost and forgotten, but an entire ecosystem.
Citation: Citation: Samuel T. Turvey, Leigh A Battett, Hao Yujiang, Zhang Xinqiao, Wang Xianyan, Huang Yagong, Zhou Kaiya, Tom Hart, and Wang Ding. Rapidly Shifting Baselines in Yangtze Fishing Communities and Local Memory of Extinct Species. Conservation Biology. 7th of January 2010. Doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2009.01395.x
For more information: see an essay Dr. Samuel Turvey wrote for the BBC Green Room on his research.
Dr. Samuel Turvey stands behind specimens of the maybe extinct Chinese paddlefish. Photo by: Samuel Turvey/Leigh Barrett.
The baiji. Photo by: Wang Ding.
Gone: a look at extinction over the past decade
(01/03/2010) No one can say with any certainty how many species went extinct from 2000-2009. Because no one knows if the world's species number 3 million or 30 million, it is impossible to guess how many known species—let alone unknown—may have vanished recently. Species in tropical forests and the world's oceans are notoriously under-surveyed leaving gaping holes where species can vanish taking all of their secrets—even knowledge of their existence—with them.
The Yangtze River may have lost another inhabitant: the Chinese paddlefish
(10/22/2009) In December of 2006 it was announced that the Yangtze River dolphin, commonly known as the baiji, had succumbed to extinction. The dolphin had survived on earth for 20 million years, but the species couldn't survive the combined onslaught of pollution, habitat loss, boat traffic, entanglement in fishing hooks, death from illegal electric fishing, and the construction of several massive dams. Now, another flagship species of the Yangtze River appears to have vanished.
New Yangtze River dam could doom more endangered species
(06/22/2009) Eight Chinese environmentalists and scientists have composed a letter warning that a new dam under consideration for the Yangtze River could lead to the extinction of several endangered species. The letter contends that Xiaonanhia Dam, which would be 30 kilometers upstream from the city of Chongqing, will negatively impact the river’s only fish reserve. Spanning 400 kilometers in the upper Yangtze, the reserve is home to 180 fish species, including the Endangered Chinese sturgeon, and the Critically Endangered Chinese paddlefish, as well as the finless porpoise.
The extinction of the baiji a 'wake-up call' to conserve vaquita and other cetaceans
(08/25/2008) In December of 2006 an expedition spent six weeks surveying the Yangtze River in China for one of the world's rarest cetaceans, the baiji. Also known as 'The Goddess of the Yangtze' the shy river-dolphin had roamed the river for millions of years locating fish with echolocation. The survey came back empty-handed without a spotting a single dolphin. Dr. Jay Barlow, a member of the surveying team, described his emotions on the expedition's findings in an interview with Mongabay.com: "I was stunned. I knew the species was in trouble, but I did not think they were already gone. We really had not seen the extinction of a large mammal species in 50 years, so we grew complacent."
Geriatric turtle sex only hope for world's rarest reptile
(05/21/2008) With only four individuals of the Yangtze giant softshell turtle left on Earth—one in the wild and three in captivity—conservationists have launched a desperate attempt to save the species from extinction.
New expedition seeks evidence for survival of the 'extinct' Baiji
(04/16/2008) The EDGE program, apart of the London Zoological Society, has sent an expedition to the Yangtze River to survey local fishermen for any evidence that the Baiji may still survive.
Rare Chinese river dolphin sighting in doubt
(09/01/2007) A prominent researcher is skeptical of last week's reported sighting of the baiji, the Chinese river dolphin declared extinct earlier this year, according to the New York Times. The sighting near Tongling city in Anhui Province -- widely reported in Chinese and Western media -- was captured on video.
Environmental, safety concerns mount over China's Three Gorges Dam
(08/29/2007) Environmental problems are worse than anticipated at China's massive Three Gorges Dam, reports the The Wall Street Journal. A year after its completion, there are rising concerns of pollution, landslides, and flooding.
Extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin is confirmed
(08/08/2007) After an extensive six-week search scientists have confirmed the probable extinction of the baiji or Yangtze river dolphin. The freshwater dolphin's extinction had been reported late last year.
Damage to Yangtze 'irreversible' says China
(04/16/2007) Pollution, dams and excessive boat traffic have caused an 'largely irreversible' decline in the aquatic ecology of the Yangtze says a report issued by China's official State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA).
The news of extinction: western media's response to the demise of the Baiji
(04/01/2007) The news came and went with an alacrity that I found alarming, almost jolting. I waited for weeks, faithfully; I could not believe that the initial announcement would be followed by nothing but silence on the issue, no rationalizations, no opinions, no discussions, no outpourings of grief. Just silence.
China will continue search for 'extinct' baiji river dolphin
(12/18/2006) Chinese state media reports that scientists will continue to search for the baiji dolphin even after a 38-day search failed to produce any evidence of its existence in the Yangtze River.
Goodbye to the Baiji
(12/14/2006) After a short illness spurred by pollution, overfishing, boat traffic, and obstructions like dams, the Baiji was declared 'functionally extinct' last night. As a species, the river dolphin found only in China's Yangtze River was 20 million years. The Baiji is survived by other river dolphins, all themselves threatened, in the Ganges, Indus, Amazon, Orinoco, and La Plata rivers. No memorial service will be held.