Yangtze River Dolphin, RIP

A new name was added to the extinction list last week: the
Yangtze river dolphin. According to the
Guardian, the Yangtze dolphin ‘is the
first large vertebrate forced to extinction by human activity in
50 years, and only the fourth time an entire evolutionary line
of mammals has vanished from the face of the Earth since the
year 1500.’

The freshwater mammal’s demise raises pressing questions about
the impacts of unsustainable fishing and mass shipping. But it also
raises more — for lack of a better term — existential questions:
How do scientists track these deaths? And what do such losses mean
to us? To answer the first query, scientists rely on a careful,
analytical process. As reported by
BBC News, exactly which creatures get
put on the death list are determined by the World Conservation
Union (IUCN) after a thorough surveying process that is reviewed
every four to five years. Currently, there are more than 800
species listed as extinct, some 60 of which can be found in
captivity, but not in the wild. 

The question of what these losses actually mean to us, however,
is a far murkier one to answer. There are no commemorative services
for the recently extinct, no mock burials. Instead, we have gloomy
news reports that read like obituaries.

In
National Wildlife, Mark Jerome Walters
grapples with the quandaries posed by extinction. ‘Each
extinction,’ he writes, ‘is a unique voice silenced in a
universal conversation of which we ourselves are only one
participant. When the tiny wings of the last Xerces blue
butterfly ceased to flutter, our world grew quieter by a whisper
and duller by a hue. Our world grew dumber still when the last
raspy call of the dusky seaside sparrow rose and fell within the
straw-and-emerald marshes of Florida’s east coast.’ These are
frustrating losses, especially because they are accelerated by
human activity and disregard. ‘Of our own choice,’ Walters goes
on, ‘the community of life becomes less intelligent — in the
broadest sense of the word.’

How do we mark such loss? Walters quotes Phyllis Windle, a
senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ scientific
integrity program, who in an essay titled ‘The Ecology of Grief,’
noted that ‘Our external as well as our internal worlds may make
environmental losses difficult to mourn. We have almost no social
support for expressing this grief.’

Pointing out that ‘mourning begins with remembrance,’ Walters
believes that, ‘To forget what we had is to forget what we have
lost. And to forget what we have lost means never knowing what we
had to begin with. That would be among the greatest tragedies of
all.’

Go there >>
Yangtze River Dolphin Driven to
Extinction

Go there, too >>
How Are Species Classed as Extinct?

And there >>
Saying Goodbye

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