And then there were twelve

Samuel Turvey

Everyone loves a wildlife story. Watching the latest ‘blue-chip’ natural history series complete with hushed narration about nature’s grandeur – or reading the latest online science about evolution or quirky behaviour in our favourite wild animals – can offer respite from the increasingly grim updates on world politics or social issues that bombard us.

Environmental stories of recent weeks have been anything but uplifting, however. Recently, the death of Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhino, was widely reported. Sudan’s death leaves only two living northern white rhinos. Although frozen sperm offers some hope that Sudan may yet reproduce post-mortem, and other white rhinos still survive in southern Africa, his death brings this unique subspecies one step closer to extinction.

Another recent story has even higher stakes: the fate of the vaquita, a tiny porpoise species unique to Mexico’s Gulf of California. Attempts have been made to ban gillnet fishing, which entangles and drowns vaquitas. However, Chinese demand for the swimbladder of totoaba fish – which sells for such high prices that it’s dubbed “aquatic cocaine”, despite having no recognised medical benefits – has led to rampant illegal fishing in the Gulf of California which is yet to be eliminated.

The impact on the vaquita has been catastrophic. A high-stakes conservation effort last autumn, aimed at capturing vaquitas to set up a breeding population, ended following the death of one of the animals. Intensive conservation actions such as this have inherent risks, but the alternative is even worse. Recently, it was reported there might be only 12 vaquitas left. A dead vaquita killed by gill nets has been found since this announcement.

Vaquita in water
A vaquita in the wild (Phocoena sinus)

These news stories describe depressing, dispiriting tragedies. Although neither animal is extinct, both are perilously close; it feels like a miracle is required. For me, though, these stories also conjure an awful sense of déjà vu.

In the early 2000s, I became involved with efforts to try to save the Yangtze River dolphin, or baiji. Its population had declined from 400 in the 1980s to just 13 by the late 1990s; it was thought only a handful survived. Then just starting out in my conservation career, I assumed the baiji’s perilous status would ensure publicity and attention, an international spotlight to prompt effective, immediate responses to save the species.

Instead, there was a frightening lack of media interest. We were told that nature documentaries are meant to entertain, not inform, with commissioners dismissing conservation as the “c” word. Our greatest success in baiji promotion was limited to a chance meeting in a London pub with Chris Moyles, who briefly mentioned it on his breakfast show the following morning. Eventually, we managed to carry out a six-week survey in 2006. We discovered that the baiji – the only representative of an entire mammal family – had just become extinct.

The international response to the baiji’s decline had many failings, including misguided prioritisation, complacency, and lack of institutional accountability. One of the most poignant lessons, however, was that it was possible to make the world’s media interested, but only when the baiji went extinct did it make front page news.

Baiji River dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) in water
Baiji River dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer)

Northern white rhinos and vaquitas have one advantage: they are receiving some media attention before either animal has disappeared, thanks to dedicated conservation groups (although media understanding is still lacking; one recent report describes the vaquita as “the world’s cutest fish”). They seem to have only become “interesting” at the eleventh hour, though; opportunities for publicity and support feel like they’ve been missed. The BBC’s recent “Blue Planet II” series led to an outcry about marine plastic pollution. Imagine the increased international pressure to enforce fishing bans in the Gulf of California if the vaquita’s plight had been mentioned too.

I fully appreciate the need for a special angle, a unique “hook”, that can feel lacking when publicising “just another endangered species”. Conservation fatigue is understandable, and the conservation community tries to balance seemingly constant “bad news” with good news stories about successful recoveries. However, escalating species declines are the grim, overwhelming reality. Animal populations around the globe have dropped by 58 percent since 1970. These trends are continuing.

Will the Sumatran rhino – a species with fewer than 100 individuals left – only receive its 15 minutes of fame when it’s too late? How about the Hainan gibbon, the saola, or the fantastically-named New Caledonian terror skink? These species together might number fewer than 100 survivors in total; why are they not as well-known as pandas or tigers? Choosing to show only cherry-picked patches of intact habitat in glossy nature documentaries, and pretending they’re the norm rather than the exception, is disingenuous and misleading. How will future generations judge today’s media institutions and their social responsibility when it comes to environmental reporting? Now that’s a story.

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