On Tuesday the Zoological Society of London launched a new conservation called Edge. It’s an acronym for ‘ecologically distinct and globally endangered’ and was described in The Guardian newspaper as an ambitious project by British scientists to save the planet’s rarest and most unusual animals.
There is a real need for an established, knowledgeable and committed group of scientists to focus in on the planet’s rarest animal species many of which are currently receiving very little conservation attention. Indeed, too many environmental groups focus on species which are charismatic rather than threatened. For example, Greenpeace sends ships to the Antarctic each year to save Minke whales — whales which have been referred to as the rabbits of the sea.
But I’m not convinced that Edge is really going to make a difference.
A spokesman for the program, Dr Jonathan Baillie, told The Guardian: “The almost-blind Yanghtze river dolphin is at the top of the list. It’s extremely threatened, a team was recently out there looking for it and could not find one – they truly are on the verge of extinction.”
In fact despite two extensive surveys in the last two years, not a single Yangtze River Dolphin, Lipotes vexillifera, has been seen since September 2004 and the species was declared functionally extinct late last year.
Dr Randall Reeves, Chair of the Cetacean Specialist Group at the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) has said that the loss of the dolphin, also known as the Baiji, would be equivalent to the ‘snapping off a complete branch from the tree of mammalian radiation’.
Illegal fishing practices are thought to have contributed to the species decline. Illegal fishing is an ongoing issue in China where set net, poisoning, dynamite, rolling hook (lines of iron hooks set across the flow of the river) and electro-fishing are officially banned along the entire length of the Yangtze River, but reportedly still widely practiced.
So what does the Royal Society propose to save this probably already extinct species of freshwater dolphin?
According to their website: interview Chinese fisherman including to promote awareness amongst local people along the river about the importance of conserving the fragile Yangtze ecosystem and its many threatened species.
But why should subsistence Chinese fishermen, probably struggling to feed their own families, care about “threatened species” and is it the job of a British-based Zoological society to “educate them”?
The Swiss-based Baiji.org Foundation has a perhaps more realistic approach including employing guards to enforcing fishing legislation where there is a viable population of the Yangtze Finless Porpoise, Neophocaena phocaenoides. Indeed the Baiji.org Foundation, recognising the Yangtze River Dolphin is now extinct, is refocusing its efforts on practical measures for the conservation of another freshwater mammal.
There are perhaps 2,000 finless porpoises in the Yangtze and a breeding population of 26 porpoises has been successfully established in the Tian-e-Zhou reserve.
As well as working towards the establishment of populations in this freshwater reserve, the Baiji.org Foundation has supported a captive breeding program and in 2005 the Baiji Conservation Aquarium at the Institute of Hydrobiology in Wuhan witnessed the birth of the first-ever freshwater cetacean in captivity, a healthy Yangtze Finless Porpoise.
In conclusion, it is encouraging that the Zoological Society of London, a well respected and well resourced environment group, has just committed to the conservation of ecologically distinct and globally endangered species.
But avoiding the extinction of more ecologically distinct and globally endangered species such as the Yangtze River Dolphin will require much more than “promoting awareness amongst local people” and asking for donations at a website. Yet this appears to be the extent of the strategy for the animal species at the top of the list for Edge, furthermore, it’s a species already considered by the world’s cetacean experts to be extinct!