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And then there were 12: Why don’t we hear about extinction until it’s too late? (commentary)

  • Species threatened with extinction often don’t get the public’s attention until they no longer exist.
  • The author, zoologist Sam Turvey, argues that more attention to these critical cases is required.
  • Ahead of International Save the Vaquita Day on July 7, Turvey points out that the world’s most endangered marine mammal is dangerously close to extinction, and it’s not alone.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Everyone loves a wildlife story. Watching the latest blue-chip natural history series complete with hushed narration about nature’s grandeur — or reading the latest online science about evolution or quirky behavior in our favorite wild animals — can offer respite from the increasingly grim updates on world politics or social issues that bombard us.

Environmental stories of recent weeks have been anything but uplifting, however. Recently, the death of Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni), was widely reported. Sudan’s death leaves only two living northern white rhinos. Although frozen sperm offers some hope that Sudan may yet reproduce post-mortem, and other white rhinos still survive in southern Africa, his death brings this unique subspecies one step closer to extinction.

The northern white rhino is down to just two individuals. Image by Lengai101 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).

Another recent story has even higher stakes: the fate of the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), a tiny porpoise species unique to Mexico’s Gulf of California. Attempts have been made to ban gillnet fishing, which entangles and drowns vaquitas. However, Chinese demand for the swim bladder of totoaba fish — which sells for such high prices that it’s dubbed “aquatic cocaine,” despite having no recognized medical benefits — has led to rampant illegal fishing in the Gulf of California, which is yet to be eliminated.

The impact on the vaquita has been catastrophic. A high-stakes conservation effort last autumn, aimed at capturing vaquitas to set up a breeding population, ended following the death of one of the animals. Intensive conservation actions such as this have inherent risks, but the alternative is even worse. Recently, it was reported there might be only 12 vaquitas left. A dead vaquita killed by gillnets has been found since this announcement.

These news stories describe depressing, dispiriting tragedies. Although neither animal is extinct, both are perilously close; it feels like a miracle is required. For me, though, these stories also conjure an awful sense of déjà vu.

Fishing nets intended for the totoaba have ensnared many vaquita, pushing the tiny porpoise that lives only in the Gulf of California to the brink of extinction. Image by Paula Olson, NOAA (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

In the early 2000s, I became involved with efforts to try to save the Yangtze River dolphin, or baiji (Lipotes vexillifer). Its population had declined from 400 in the 1980s to just 13 by the late 1990s; it was thought only a handful survived. Then just starting out in my conservation career, I assumed the baiji’s perilous status would ensure publicity and attention, an international spotlight to prompt effective, immediate responses to save the species.

Instead, there was a frightening lack of media interest. We were told that nature documentaries are meant to entertain, not inform, with commissioners dismissing conservation as the “c” word. Our greatest success in baiji promotion was limited to a chance meeting in a London pub with radio host Chris Moyles, who briefly mentioned it on his breakfast show the following morning. Eventually, we managed to carry out a six-week survey in 2006. We discovered that the baiji — the only representative of an entire mammal family — had just become extinct.

The international response to the baiji’s decline had many failings, including misguided prioritization, complacency, and lack of institutional accountability. One of the most poignant lessons, however, was that it was possible to make the world’s media interested, but only when the baiji went extinct did it make front-page news.

Video by the Natural History Museum of London.

Northern white rhinos and vaquitas have one advantage: They are receiving some media attention before either animal has disappeared, thanks to dedicated conservation groups (although media understanding is still lacking; one recent report describes the vaquita as “the world’s cutest fish”). They seem to have only become “interesting” at the 11th hour, though; opportunities for publicity and support feel like they’ve been missed. The BBC’s recent “Blue Planet II” series led to an outcry about marine plastic pollution. Imagine the increased international pressure to enforce fishing bans in the Gulf of California if the vaquita’s plight had been mentioned too.

I fully appreciate the need for a special angle, a unique “hook,” that can feel lacking when publicizing “just another endangered species.” Conservation fatigue is understandable, and the conservation community tries to balance seemingly constant “bad news” with good news stories about successful recoveries. However, escalating species declines are the grim, overwhelming reality. Animal populations around the globe have dropped by 58 percent since 1970. These trends are continuing.

Scientists believe that no more than 100 — and perhaps fewer than 30 — Sumatran rhinos still live in the wild. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Will the Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) — a species with fewer than 100 individuals left — only receive its 15 minutes of fame when it’s too late? How about the Hainan gibbon (Nomascus hainanus), the saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), or the fantastically named New Caledonian terror skink (Phoboscincus bocourti)? These species together might number fewer than 100 survivors in total; why are they not as well-known as pandas or tigers? Choosing to show only cherry-picked patches of intact habitat in glossy nature documentaries, and pretending they’re the norm rather than the exception, is disingenuous and misleading. How will future generations judge today’s media institutions and their social responsibility when it comes to environmental reporting? Now that’s a story.

Banner image of vaquitas in the Gulf of California by Paula Olson, NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain). 

Sam Turvey is a professor at the Institute of Zoology, a department of the Zoological Society of London. He was deeply involved with the conservation efforts surrounding the Yangtze River dolphin. He is the author of “Witness to Extinction: How We Failed to Save the Yangtze River Dolphin.” (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Citations

Hildebrandt, T. B., Hermes, R., Colleoni, S., Diecke, S., Holtze, S., Renfree, M. B., … Galli, C. (2018). Embryos and embryonic stem cells from the white rhinoceros. Nature Communications, 9(1), 2589.

Turvey, S. T., Pitman, R. L., Taylor, B. L., Barlow, J., Akamatsu, T., Barrett, L. A., … & Wei, Z. (2007). First human-caused extinction of a cetacean species? Biology letters3(5), 537-540.

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