Fifteen years ago, Douglas Adams—author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—entreated us to grab our towels, head for China’s Yangtze River, and take advantage of our last chance to see the Baiji dolphin, the 20 million year old Goddess of the Yangtze.
I didn’t go. I took a reassuring look at my “Don’t Panic” button and turned my attention to Dan Quayle’s spelling errors, and listening for Ross Perot’s “giant sucking sound.”
Now it’s too late. Scientists recently declared the Baiji extinct. It’s been two years since the species was seen in the wild; four since the last captive Baiji died. Perhaps some still ply the Yangtze’s waters, but not enough for long-term survival.
Does it matter that we’ve one less neighbor on Earth? After all, extinction is intertwined with evolution the way death is intertwined with life. The Baiji’s loss may not yet be cause for panic, but certainly for pause and humble reflection.
In the Bay Area we’re blessed to live in one of the world’s most biologically diverse regions. We share our lands with California tiger salamanders, Presidio Manzanita, and dozens of species that, like the Baiji, are found nowhere else on Earth.
The Baiji’s demise was caused by habitat destruction, unsustainable fishing practices, and boat collisions. It was river kill of China’s impressive climb towards modernity, traded away for comforts most of us take for granted.
The Bay Area no longer faces such stark choices, but we face choices nonetheless. Hardly a day passes without new proposals to turn wildlife habitat into another ball field or dog park, condos or parking lot.
Will we trade away our green sturgeon for another irrigation pump? Our snowy plovers so dogs can roam off-leash? Our answers to these questions will define our biological legacy. As we contemplate these choices, let’s pause for the Baiji, say “so long,” and thanks for the solemn lesson.
With a perspective, I’m Brent Plater.