So Farewell, Then, Chinese River Dolphin

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The amazing thing about the Chinese river dolphin is not its extinction so much as the fact that it has survived this long at all. It simply beggars belief that a sensate mammal was able to inhabit that viscous spillway of heavy metals, sewage and other toxins that goes by the name of the Yangtze River—but the poor things hung on grimly. In 2002, there were around a hundred of them struggling through the muck. In 2005, their numbers were estimated at 13. This year, we have bid a casual ciao to the remaining few cetaceans. According to a recently published study, we’ve killed them all off.
Following hard in their wake are the white dolphins of the China coast (sometimes called “pink dolphins” because the presence of tiny blood vessels near the skin’s surface gives them a distinctive tint). The government has labeled them a “national key protected species,” which is to say they are doomed. The last significant population – some estimates put it at 200, others as low as 65 – lives in Hong Kong waters. Given the amount of maritime traffic, that’s the equivalent of trying to bed down on a six-lane highway. People sometimes go on dolphin-spotting tours: it must be a Sisyphean experience.
A few years ago, the pink dolphin was a favorite subject of Hong Kong children’s drawings, but the little ones don’t bother now. Perhaps one day they’ll stop drawing trees and coloring the sky blue. I don’t mean to get all sententious on you, but the Chinese river dolphin is the first large vertebrate to become extinct in fifty years, and the gaps between extinctions, in all likelihood, are going to be a lot shorter from now on.