Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

The New York Times was reporting this story like it was surprising in the slightest:

A rare, nearly blind white dolphin that survived for millions of years is effectively extinct, an international expedition declared Wednesday after ending a fruitless six-week search of its Yangtze River habitat.

The baiji would be the first large aquatic mammal driven to extinction since hunting and overfishing killed off the Caribbean monk seal in the 1950s.

For the baiji, the culprit was a degraded habitat — busy ship traffic, which confounds the sonar the dolphin uses to find food, and overfishing and pollution in the Yangtze waters of eastern China, the expedition said.

”The baiji is functionally extinct. We might have missed one or two animals but it won’t survive in the wild,” said August Pfluger, a Swiss economist turned naturalist who helped put together the expedition. ”We are all incredibly sad.”

Almost all of the water in China is horribly contaminated, the only thing thats surprising to me is that anything could live in the Yangtze at all with the amounts of pollutants dumped in there by industry. Chinese people don’t drink the water, which is a pretty clear sign that I shouldn’t either. Which is a pretty good excuse to drink beer instead (I love Tsing Tao!). Seriously though, a permanent haze hangs over Shanghai and Suzhou that would put LA smog to shame. Black soot covers my Dad’s balcony after a few days, and your skin feels dirty after walking around outside for a while. Window-washers (some who dress like SpiderMan) are an extremely common sight, as the soot and pollution needs to be cleaned off frequently or it cakes up, making the windows opaque. The pollution is so apparent that it makes me more than a bit nervous thinking about what the downstream effects of nearly no environmental reguations will be on China and its people (my family included).

And yes, the LAWS are in place to reduce pollution. There is just zero enforcement, which is a common thread throughout Chinese law.

For example, many satellite dishes are illegal. Some are legal, but they cost a LOT. Or, you can get the illegal ones for next to nothing. Landlords and apartment complexs that house ex-pats are complicit in their tenent’s crime. An ex-pat friend got this email:

There is a government inspection next week. So, next week a man will come by your apartment to take down your illegal satellite dish. Then, he will come by again the next week to put it back up. Thank you.

Her response? That’s so China.


  1. #1 andrea
    December 14, 2006

    I know what you mean! I lived in China for three years, and while we were in the relatively clean city of Xiamen, the famous dolphins were rarely, if ever, seen. I only spotted one after about 2 1/2 years of living there.

  2. #2 Crudely Wrott
    December 16, 2006

    Is this what is meant by “inscrutable?”

    Now, remember: in all human interactions there is the option to cheat. Some (read most, if not all) forms of government find this option easiest, and too often expedient. Imagine the temptation.

  3. #3 Leagle Eagle
    December 17, 2006

    Hey before you leave China, be sure to visit a Chinese courtroom. Don’t you like the way they put the defendant’s in the little cage?

  4. #4 oleblue
    December 18, 2006

    I have read many articles about China’s pollution problem. Genetic defects are being blamed on the pollution problem as well as many other problems.

  5. #5 Matt
    December 18, 2006

    I’m curious as to whether or not China has any tradition of wildlife preservation and conservation. The naturalist and novelist Peter Matthiessen, in his book “The Birds of Heaven: Travels With Cranes”, indicates that from his experiences travelling in China that it doesn’t have a strong one, at least when compared with some of the West. But it isn’t clear to me that this is only a modern view of some Chinese and their government (sacrificing all in the name of GDP growth) or something that has always been a part of Chinese culture.

  6. #6 susannah
    December 29, 2006

    I lived in Benxi, near Shenyang for a year. The pollution was unbelievable. But the people living there treasured the mountains outside the city and took any opportunity to visit them. While there didn’t seem to be any sort of environmental movement, I think it could catch on without much difficulty as long as the economy doesn’t suffer too much in the short run.

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