Atonement (2007)

January 3, 2008

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Overview

Director:
Joe Wright

Writers:
Ian McEwan (novel)
Christopher Hampton (screenplay)
Release Date:
7 September 2007 (UK)

Genre:
Drama / Romance / War

Tagline:
You can only imagine the truth.

Plot Outline:
Fledgling writer Briony Tallis, as a 13-year-old, irrevocably changes the course of several lives when she accuses her older sister’s (Keira Knightley) lover (James McAvoy) of a crime he did not commit. Based on the British romance novel by Ian McEwan.

Cast
(Cast overview, first billed only)
Saoirse Ronan … Briony Tallis, aged 13
Ailidh Mackay … Singing Housemaid

Brenda Blethyn … Grace Turner
Julia West … Betty

James McAvoy … Robbie Turner
Harriet Walter … Emily Tallis

Keira Knightley … Cecilia Tallis
Juno Temple … Lola Quincey
Felix von Simson … Pierrot Quincey
Charlie von Simson … Jackson Quincey
Alfie Allen … Danny Hardman
Patrick Kennedy … Leon Tallis
Benedict Cumberbatch … Paul Marshall
Peter Wight … Police Inspector
Leander Deeny … Police Constable

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I can only begin this review by saying how visually stunning this film is. The minutes that are used in sweeping camera pans and long continuous shots simply have to be seen to be believed. The French beach segment is probably the finest example of visual film making I have ever seen.

So, what about the rest of the film?

Well, it isn’t a let down in the slightest. Keira Knightley shows the form that launched her career and leaves the truly awful Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy behind her, and conjures up a beautiful performance to match her looks. McAvoy is top draw, but then I have yet to see a film where he isn’t.

The film itself is period (WWII) story telling of the highest order. A bitter sweet tale that spans the war and beyond, touching and changing the lives off all it’s protagonists. The twists and turns are expertly executed and the end result is simply unmissable. Oscar material if ever I saw it 🙂

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Climate change will significantly increase impending bird extinctions

December 6, 2007

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Where do you go when you’ve reached the top of a mountain and you can’t go back down?

It’s a question increasingly relevant to plants and animals, as their habitats slowly shift to higher elevations, driven by rising temperatures worldwide. The answer, unfortunately, is you can’t go anywhere. Habitats shrink to the vanishing point, and species go extinct.

That scenario is likely to be played out repeatedly and at an accelerating rate as the world continues to warm, Stanford researchers say.

By 2100, climate change could cause up to 30 percent of land-bird species to go extinct worldwide, if the worst-case scenario comes to pass. Land birds constitute the vast majority of all bird species.

”Of the land-bird species predicted to go extinct, 79 percent of them are not currently considered threatened with extinction, but many will be if we cannot stop climate change,” said Cagan Sekercioglu, a senior research scientist at Stanford and the lead author of a paper detailing the research, which is scheduled to be published online this week in Conservation Biology.

The study is one of the first analyses of extinction rates to incorporate the most recent climate change scenarios set forth earlier this year in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which shared the Nobel Peace Price with Al Gore.

The researchers modeled changes to the elevational limits of the ranges of more than 8,400 species of land birds using 60 scenarios. The scenarios consisted of various combinations of surface warming projections from the 2007 IPCC report, habitat loss estimates from the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (an evaluation of the planet’s ecosystems by 1,360 experts around the world), and several possibilities of shifts in elevational range limits.

The worst-case scenario of 6.4 degrees Celsius surface warming combined with extensive habitat loss produced the estimate of 30 percent of land bird species going extinct by 2100. Increasing habitat loss exacerbates the effects of climate change because organisms seeking more suitable conditions will be less likely to find intact habitats. Even with an intermediate 2.8 C warming, 400 to 550 land-bird extinctions are expected.

”Vegetational shift is the key issue here,” Sekercioglu said. ”Birds will follow the shift in habitat.”

All plants have certain temperature and precipitation requirements they need to flourish. As lowlands become too warm for some species, higher slopes that were formerly too cool become better suited to their needs, and the distributions of plants slowly move upward. That shifting of populations renders bird species vulnerable to a host of complications.

Topography itself is a major issue. Each bird species is only found between specific elevations, limits based mainly on the temperatures at which it can survive and the presence of the plants, insects and other animals on which it feeds. Temperature decreases as one goes up a mountain, so as the lowlands become warmer, plant and animal communities need to move higher in order to remain in their required microclimates. Most bird species live in the tropics, mostly in lowland environments. In many of these areas, there may be no significantly higher slopes to which they can retreat. But even the presence of hills or mountains does not guarantee the survival of a species.

As one moves upslope, the extent of the area encompassed by a given elevational range almost always decreases. It’s a matter of simple geometry. The circumference of a mountain is typically smaller near the summit than at its base, so a range of, say, a hundred vertical meters occupies a far smaller band of area near the top than it does down at the base.

And once the summit of a mountain becomes too hot for a species or its preferred vegetation type, the habitable area is reduced to nothing.

”It’s like an escalator to extinction. As a species is forced upwards and its elevational range narrows, the species moves closer to extinction,” Sekercioglu said.

In some instances, species can expand their ranges, which the authors also considered in their models. If warming is limited and a species adapts, only the upper limit of a species’ elevational range might rise. As warming continues, however, the lower bound is likely to rise, as well.

Additional threats include interactions between the rising temperatures and other environmental factors. For example, as Hawaiian mountains get warmer, mosquitoes carrying avian malaria, to which most native bird species have no immunity, are moving upslope, invading the last refuges of birds already on the brink of extinction. In Costa Rica, toucans normally confined to lower elevations are colonizing mountain forests, where they compete with resident species for food and nesting holes, and prey on the eggs and nestlings of other bird species.

In addition, plant species that currently share a habitat may not all react the same way to temperature and moisture changes. Some species may be forced upslope while others are able to linger behind, tearing apart plant and animal communities even if all the species survive. Differences in soil composition can further disrupt plant communities. If soils at higher elevations are inhospitable to some plant species, those species will be wedged between a fixed upper bound and a rising lower bound until they are squeezed out of existence.

Until now, highland species have been less threatened by habitat loss and hunting, simply because most people live in flat lowlands instead of the steeper highlands. Compared to lowland birds, however, highland species are not only more sensitive to temperature changes, but their populations also are more isolated from each other, as mountains effectively constitute habitat islands surrounded by a sea of hotter lowlands.

The study also has shown that sedentary birds, which comprise over 80 percent of all bird species, are much more likely to go extinct from climate change than are migratory birds. That suggests that many sedentary mountain species currently thought to be safe are actually jeopardized by global warming. All in all, climate change is likely to be especially hard on the hundreds of bird species endemic to tropical mountains.

But in part because of the remoteness of the mountains and in part due to a lack funding for ornithological studies in most tropical countries, there are few data on these birds’ responses to climate change. Crucial remote sensing data are also becoming less available, as government satellites like Landsat age and as image distribution moves increasingly to the relatively expensive private sector.

”To effectively monitor the rate of change as warming progresses, especially in the species-rich tropics, we need a lot more data on birds’ distributions and on the speed and extent of birds’ elevational shifts in response to climate change,” Sekercioglu said.

Perhaps the most worrisome finding is that each additional degree of warming will have increasingly devastating effects. The authors estimate that an increase of 1 C from present temperatures will trigger roughly 100 bird extinctions. But if the global average temperature were to rise 5 C, from that point on an additional degree of warming, to 6 C, would be expected to cause 300 to 500 more bird extinctions.

”This emphasizes the importance of any measure that reduces surface warming, even if we cannot stop it altogether,” Sekercioglu said. ”Even a reduction of 1 degree can make a huge difference.”

”Giving up the fight against global warming would be the true disaster,” he added.

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Communities Across the Globe Getting to Grips with Climate Change

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UN Environment Programme/Global Environment Facility Report Points to Real Possibilities for Climate Proofing Economies, Livelihoods and Infrastructure

UN Climate Convention – 2 to 14 December – Bali and Beyond

Bali/Nairobi, 4 December 2007 – The way farmers in the Sudan, flood-prone communities in Argentina and dengue-challenged islands in the Caribbean are beginning to adapt to climate change are distilled in a new report launched today.

The five-year Assessments of Impacts and Adaptations to Climate Change provides new and inspiring examples of how vulnerable communities and countries may ‘climate proof’ economies in the years and decades to come.

In doing so, the assessments lay a foundation upon which at-risk nations and the international community can build and fund a credible and timely response to the climate change that is already underway.

Choices – the Tortoise and the ‘Hare’

The report underlines that factoring climate into development strategies is do-able but that in some cases hard choices may have to be made.

In a modern re-run of Aesop’s famous fable, it highlights the case of tortoise and the rabbit rather than hare.

One study in South Africa’s world famous Cape Floral Kingdom – a unique and economically important ecosystem – indicates that climate change is likely to increase the risk of extinction of the highly endangered riverine rabbit.

However, adaptation measures might conserve the padloper tortoise highlighting how across sectors – from biodiversity to agriculture, water and infrastructure – investments in adaptation will need to be intelligently and cost-effectively targeted.

The more than $ 9 million assessment has been funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), implemented by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and executed by the START secretariat in Washington DC and TWAS, the Academy of Science for the Developing World in Trieste, Italy.

Twenty-four case studies were carried out under the AIACC project, including eleven in Africa. They encompass food security in the Sahel; smallholder farmers and artisanal fishing communities in South America; coastal townships of small islands in the Pacific; pastoralists in Mongolia; rice farmers in the lower Mekong basin.

More than 350 scientists, experts and ‘stakeholders’ from 150 institutions in 50 developing countries and 12 developed ones took part. Pilot adaptation programmes have been drawn up in some cases and some of these have already been tested with many encouraging results.

The findings, stories and recommendations from the AIACC case studies are presented in two newly published books, Climate Change and Vulnerability and Climate Change and Adaptation. Results of the project are also summarized in the final technical report and detailed in a number of supporting reports available at http://www.start.org.

Community Involvement and Early Warning

A key success of the assessment has been the increased awareness among the scientists, governments and local communities as to the importance of adaptation.

It also highlights in many cases the need to develop early warning systems especially, but not exclusively in Africa, where weather and climate monitoring networks remain sparse, under funded or poorly maintained.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: “2007 has, as a result of the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), been a year in which the science of climate change has reached a finality – it is happening, it is unequivocal”.

“2007 has also seen clear and cost effective strategies for cutting greenhouse gas emissions put on the table from improved energy efficiency in buildings to ones that address deforestation and agriculture,” he added.

“One of the big missing links has been adaptation, both in terms of adaptive strategies and in terms of resources for vulnerable communities. This assessment, involving experts across the developed and developing world, lays a solid and much needed foundation – a foundation upon which adaptation can become part of country development plans and built into international assistance including overseas development aid,” said Mr Steiner.

Monique Barbut, Chief Executive Officer and Chairperson of the GEF, said: “The GEF has a long history working with the world’s most vulnerable countries

that want environmentally-friendly ways to adapt to changing climate without sacrificing key development goals”.

“As this wide sweeping assessment shows first hand, we are moving forward in a very focused way to weave adaptation strategies into daily practice. GEF money is working today to ensure that food security, access to drinking and irrigation water, sound public health and other basic needs are protected now and into the future,” she added.

Neil Leary of the International START Secretariat in Washington, who along with the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World in Trieste, have executed the project said: “Adaptation to climate hazards is not new. People have always been at risk from the climate and have continually sought ways of adapting. Still, variations and extremes of climate regularly exceed abilities to cope, too often with devastating effect, and give evidence of what has been called an adaptation deficit”.

“Now climate change threatens to widen the deficit, as shown by the AIACC studies. But the AIACC studies also find and document a variety of adaptive practices in use that reduce vulnerability. Building on and improving many of these practices can serve as a good starting point for adapting to the growing risks from climate change. Reducing emissions of the gases that cause climate change is necessary. But adaptation is necessary too,” he added.

The decision to carry out the assessments was at the request of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC said the peer reviewed reports had made a significant contribution to the IPCC’s landmark fourth assessment report published this year.

Highlights – Africa

South Africa

The Berg River dam was commissioned in 2004 to supply Cape Town, South Africa with water for uses such as drinking and irrigation. Climate change is likely to put increased stress on water availability over the coming decades in the Western Cape region.

The researchers looked at various costs and benefits linked with a variety of adaptation measures including increasing the capacity of the dam to creative water markets. They conclude that “substituting water markets for the existing allocation system substantially increased the simulated marginal cost of water to urban users and led to reduced consumption”.

The researchers add that such a system would have to take into account the impact on poor households in the Cape Town area.

Another study has looked at cost effective adaptation opportunities in parts of the Cape Floral Kingdom in the Western Cape – a biodiversity hotspot and major tourist attraction.

By 2050, climate change may result in loss of habitat for over 10 per cent of species and six per cent would need to move to new locations. Wildlife corridors will help.

One option might also be to expand the conservation network including reserves. Overall however a more cost effective option will be to pay farmers to manage land for conservation or to encourage more environment-friendly farming, the study concludes.

The Gambia

Some projections of climate change suggest steadily declining rainfall from 2010 to the end off the century in West Africa. Should a drier climate come to pass, millet, a key staple crop, would undergo a gradual decline in yields unless adaptation measures are taken.

The researchers looked at four responses including the introduction and extension of irrigation, the introduction of new crop varieties and the use of fertilizers.

The findings show that millet crop yields can be increased even in a climate constrained world with harvests improved by 13 per cent if new varieties are deployed; up to a third if fertilizers are made available and increased by 37 per cent if irrigation is introduced.

The analysis indicates that new varieties and expanded use of fertilizer can be cost effective measures for maintaining grain yields in a drier climate. However, the adoption of irrigation is found to be too costly to be economically viable for growing relatively low valued grains.

The actual income for poor farmers might fall without assistance as irrigation will require the purchase and maintenance of diesel-powered water pumping kit. Solar-powered pumping could reduce the costs by perhaps 60 per cent.

Sudan

Here three case studies were undertaken in the dry, drought-prone and often degraded lands of Bara Province of North Kordofan; Arbaat, Red Sea State and El Fashir, North Darfur to see if communities can be made more resilient to climatic shocks.

The findings indicate that relatively minor but well thought out interventions, if supported by community involvement and involving in many cases the empowerment of women and services such as veterinary to micro-credit, can boost livelihoods and reduce vulnerability.

In Bara, a pilot to develop sustainable livelihoods has been tested under an UN Development Programme-GEF initiative called the Community-Based Rangeland Rehabilitation for Carbon Sequestration’.

Small-scale irrigated vegetable gardens, pest management, a switch from goats to sheep, sand dune stabilization and other measures have been tested as adaptive measures.

The project in Bara has seen land rehabilitation rise by close to 60 per cent; the carrying capacity for livestock rise by over 45 per cent and forage production climb by 48 per cent.

In Arbaat, various practical and institutional measures have been tested including the deployment of rainwater harvesting and tree planting alongside micro credit schemes, adult literacy for women and training for improved agricultural practices.

The work in Arbaat has led to land productivity increasing by 12 per cent and crop productivity by almost a fifth with improvements in both water quality and quantity.

In El Fashir, the community has developed their own response to a changing climate now supplemented by outside assistance.

Utilizing a water collection system known as trus alongside earth dams.

Responding to the encroachment of sand over fertile soils by adopting magun cultivation involving the sinking of regular placed holes five to 15 cm deep in which to plant melon and other seedlings.

Diversifying crop production including pumpkin, okra, tomatoes, citrus fruits, cucumbers, tobacco, millet and sesame.

The establishment of trades union – the Traditional Farmers and Fruits and Vegetable Unions – to organize production, harvesting and distribution.

The project has registered a 50 per cent improvement in productivity of the land as a result of dramatically increased water harvesting.

Asia

Mongolia

A study of livestock – a key mainstay of the Mongolian economy – indicates that climatic impacts are already affecting productivity.

Over the period 1980 to 2001, the average weight of sheep, goats and cattle have fallen by an average of 4kg, 2kg and 10 kg. Wool and cashmere production are also down.

Models forecast increasing impacts as a result of climbing air temperatures including a spread of the desert area to the north by 2080. The weight of ewes in the summer is expected to decline by 50 per cent by the same date as a result of factors including heat stress.

The area of land in Mongolia suitable for grazing may decline from 60 per cent now to 20 per in 2080.

There is also concern that climate change may intensify weather extremes from drought to a phenomenon called dzuds – sudden spurts of heavy and long-lasting snowfall that bar animals from access to grazing land.

In 1999-2000 a dzud event saw herders losing more than a quarter of their livestock forcing Mongolia to request international assistance.

A suite of adaptation measures are pinpointed ranging from insurance systems and risk funds to buffer herders against climatic shocks up to improved forecasting of extreme weather events.

The revival of traditional pasture management, reforestation of flood plains and irrigation of pasture lands are also proposed alongside the provision of animal shelters.

Studies on climatic impacts and possible adaptation strategies have also been carried out for Indonesia.

Here the Citarum watershed emerges as highly vulnerable to climate change with more extreme floods and droughts likely over the coming decades.

Studies indicate that many of these impacts can be minimized if forest cover is kept above 25 per cent. The authorities and the private sector are now looking at paying communities upstream to maintain rather than fell the forest – a system known as payment for ecosystem services.

“The electricity company Indonesian Power is also willing to support community reforestation activities through a community development programme. With these efforts, it is expected that a minimum forest cover of 25 per cent could be achieved to ensure a continuous supply of water during dry season and extreme drought years,” says the AIACC report.

China

A further study in Asia has focused on the Heihe River Basin in Northwestern China – an area where water supplies are already heavily utilized if not overtly utilized and where conflict of water is already occurring.

The study forecasts that that average temperature rises of between 2.5 degrees C and 6.5 degrees C could occur by 2050.

A vulnerability assessment has also been undertaken indicating a range of serious emerging risks as a result off climate change including very severe water shortages; increased floods and droughts and impacts on food supplies.

“Ecosystem vulnerability to climate change in the Heihe River Basin is also high. The degree of vulnerability is highest in the lower reach of the basin which is largely unmanaged grassland,” says the report. Indeed, it warns that increasing pressure from climate, population and over use of nature-based resources could trigger ecological collapse in some areas.

The researchers have drawn up a list of adaptation options that might assist the communities of the Heihe River Basin.

These include water-saving irrigation strategies; leak reduction from irrigation channels; conserving soil moisture by plastic films, straw and deep plowing methods up to the establishment of market mechanisms such as water permits and water allocation policies.

Latin America

Argentina and Uruguay

One AIACC study here has focused on the likely impact of climate change on floods and storm surges on coastal and estuary lands on La Plata River.

Strong winds, high tides and the natural features of the La Plata mean flooding occurs already with vulnerable areas identified as Samborombon Bay and up stream as far as Buenos Aires and its surrounds.

The researchers modeled likely future floods as a result of climate change including effects on storm surges and sea level rise.

It is likely that the level of the La Plata will rise higher than average sea level rise because of changes in wind patterns with the increase higher on the Uruguay coast and greater up the river’s estuary.

The report estimates that, as a result of climate change and a modest one per cent per year increase in population, the population at risk of floods could be 1.7 million by 2070 – more than three times the current numbers at risk of floods.

Around a quarter of a million people will be at risk of flooding each year or six times the current number at risk.

Property and infrastructure losses for the period 2050-2100 could range from five to 15 billion US dollars. Part of the loss calculation is based on the assumption of a single storm surge surging into the Metropolitan region of Buenos Aires.

The findings have been presented to the governments concerned alongside recommendations that include a review of coastal and city defenses and of early warning systems and flood response strategies.

The report also flags up concern that a traditional adaptation strategy is being ignored with increasing numbers of poor settlements and ‘gated communities of upper middle class people’ being sited on very low coastal lands.

The Caribbean

Dengue hemorrhagic fever and dengue shock syndrome are forecast to increase in the tropics and sub tropics as a result of climate change.

In the Caribbean cases have climbed from a few hundred a year in the 1980s to as many as 8,000 a year since the early 1990s.

There are concerns that rising cases of dengue could impact on the economically-important tourism industry which accounts for nearly 70 per cent of GDP in Antigua and more than 10 per cent on most other islands.

The researchers estimate that a two degree C temperature rise in the Caribbean could, by the 2080s, triple the cases of dengue.

This AIACC study not only assessed the likelihood of dengue increasing but pin pointed measures that can reduce the risk.

It found, for example, that pupae of the dengue-carrying mosquito favour breeding in 40 gallon drums commonly used for outside water storage. The study also concluded that informal settlements and poor households, often headed by a single unemployed woman, were at greatest risk.

Education on the disease and its transmission, targeted at these households, is suggested as one important adaptation strategy, alongside measures to deal with the breeding grounds.

A pilot early warning system has also been developed and the findings and recommendations discussed with several countries including Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

October 13, 2007

Director: Gore Verbinski
Johnny Depp – Jack Sparrow
Orlando Bloom – Will Turner
Keira Knightley – Elizabeth Swann

Once again we’re plunged into the world of sword fights and “savvy” pirates. Captain Jack Sparrow is reminded he owes a debt to Davy Jones, Who captains the flying Dutch man ,a ghostly ship, with a crew from hell. Facing the “locker” Jack must find the heart of Davy Jones but to save himself he must get the help of quick-witted Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan. If that’s not complicated enough will and Elizabeth are sentenced to hang, unless will can get Lord Cutler Beckett Jack’s compass, Will is forced to join another crazy adventure with Jack.

Right, so is it a kids movie or is it an adults or is it aimed at both, because Jesus Christ it doesn’t half drag on at two and a half hours long. The first film, novel, with Depp in great form. This one, well it’s a fucking shit story stitched up with well meaning and planned unbelievable action sequences. Oh, and some well staged, sometimes humorous one liners and dialog. Returning to the ‘is it for adults or children?’: Well I was going to say there was a story included somewhere for adults but then I have already dealt with the fact story is built around the nothingness that is the films CGI. Children will like it for the stupidity and action, but not for much else as mine were squirming to go do something else at the end of the running time. However, and this is just a guess, I’m thinking that this one and the next were filmed together as is a trend these days after LOTR’s. Which also leaves the reason for the shitty ending. Bring on the next one. If only so that I don’t have to sit through anymore. Jack Sparrow aka Depp was the draw in the first. Getting the series done and dusted is the draw to the finale.

I knew there was a reason I hadn’t watched this before now…

IMDB


So long, and thanks for all the fish

September 16, 2007

Yangtze River Dolphin

If the Yangtze river dolphin isn’t quite extinct yet, it soon will be. Conservationist Mark Carwardine tells the tale of its last daysThe first time I went in search of the Yangtze river dolphin, or baiji, was in 1988 with Douglas Adams, author of ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’, as part of a year spent travelling the world in search of endangered species for a book and radio series called ‘Last Chance to See’. We explored a small part of the Yangtze, which runs for 6380 kilometres through the heart of China.

We were overwhelmed by the dolphins phonomenally high profile in CHina. We drank Baiji beer and Baijicola, stayed in the Baiji Hotel and used Lipotes vexillifer toilet paper. We even came across Baiji weighing scales and Baiji fertiliser. It was the aquatic equivalent of the giant panda.

Unfortunately, though, we failed to see a single dolphin in the wild. We weren’t surprised – the Yangtze river is vast and the dolphins were notoriously hard to see, surfacing briefly without a splash.

Douglas and I did meet Qi-Qi (pronounced chee-chee), a beautiful bluish-grey dolphin with a long, narrow, slightly upturned beak, a low triangular dorsal fin, broad flippers and tiny eyes. Qi-Qi was just a year old when he was injured by fishing hooks in 1980 and taken into captivity to be nursed back to health. He was kept at the Institute of Hydrobiology in Wuhan for 22 years, where he taught scientists much about his disappearing species until his sad death on 14 July 2002. He reminded me of Martha, the last of the passenger pigeons, who died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

I’ve been back several times since that first visit and, to my eternal regret, never did encounter a wild free Yangtze river dolphin. Now I never shall. The Yangtze river dolphin, Lipotes vexillifer, is the first cetacean to be driven to extinction by human activity.

Last month a Chinese man captured video footage of what might have been a lone baiji, boosting hopes that there might be a few survivors. Of course, that is a possibility, though the validity of the distant, poor-quality video has been questioned by experts. However, any hope of capturing a breeding pair has all but vanished, and the continued deterioration of the Yangtze ecosystem means that without human intervention the dolphins have no chance of survival. The species is functionally extinct, even if it is not actually extinct.

This is no ordinary extinction. We have lost large mammal species before, most recently the Caribbean monk seal, Monachus tropicalis, which was hunted to extinction in the 1950’s. The Yangtze river dolphin, however, was especially remarkable because it was the sole member of a distinct mammal family, the Lipotidae. It diverged from other cetaceans more than 20 million years ago, so its disappearance represents the end of a much longer branch of the evolutionary tree than most extinctions.

It’s a shocking tragedy. It’s also downright inexcusable. We had plenty of warning that the dolphin was in serious trouble – more than 20 years, no less – yet we failed to provide it with adequate protection. Accidental deaths due to fishing and shipping, over fishing, the rapid deterioration of the Yangtze river, an outrageous lack of funds, ineffective project management and incessant bickering between the Chinese authorities and western scientists sealed its fate a long time ago.

Even before it vanished, surprisingly little was known about the baiji. It wasn’t brought to the attention of western scientists until 1916, when a lone individual was killed by an American missionary’s son and taken back to the US. Another 40 years passed before scientists in China began to study the species.

An exclusively freshwater dolphin, unique to China, the Yangtze river dolphin once lived along a 1700-kilometre stretch of the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze river, from the magnificent Three Gorges region all the way to the river mouth. It also lived in two vast lakes connected to the Yangtze, Dongting and Poyang, and, until the 1950s, in the Qiantang, a river a few hundred kilometres to the south of the Yangtze.

The baiji was active during the day, typically living in small groups of three or four individuals, and apparently resting at night in areas where the current was slow. It fed mainly on fish, using its long beak to probe into the muddy riverbed around water confluences and sandbars with large eddies. It was a slow breeder, the females giving birth to a single calf once every two years.

Yangtze river dolphins had little need to see in the turbid waters of their riverine home, where viability can drop to about 12 centimetres in late summer. They could distinguish objects placed on the surface, so their eyes were functional – but only just. Instead, they used a highly developed sense of echolocatio, like other dolphins, to find their food and to navigate.

The species is mentioned in Chinese literature dating back 2200 years and Guo Pu (AD 276-324), a scholar of the Jin dynasty, described the river as “teeming” with dolphins. Revered as the “Goddess of the Yangtze”, according to legend the baiji was the reincarnation of a princess who had refused to marry a man she did not love and was drowned by her father for shaming the family. Fishermen believed its appearance was a friendly warning of an impending storm and that anyone who hurt one would come to a tragic end. Until recently, this superstition helped protect the animal.

All that changed during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s. The dolphin’s respected status was suddenly denounced and, instead of being revered, it was hunted for its flesh and skin. A factory was even established to make handbags and gloves out of dolphin skin, though it did not last long as the animals quickly became scarce.

Even after the hunting ended, fishing – the main killer of porpoises, dolphins and whales worldwide – took a heavy toll. The dolphins liked to feed exactly where fishermen set their gill nets and fyke nets, resulting in many being caught accidentally, and drowned. At least half of all known dolphin deaths in the 1970s and 1980s were caused by rolling hooks – lines of hooks up to a kilometre long – and other fishing gear. Electro fishing – applying a current to water – accounted for 40 per cent of deaths during the 1990s. Rolling hooks and electrofishing are illegal, but still common.

Blinded and deafened

Indeed, the dolphin couldn’t have picked a worse place to live. The Yangtze river basin is home to an astonishing tenth of the human population. Accessible to ocean-going vessels up to 1000 kilometres from the sea, the Yangtze is one of the busiest rivers in the world. A 2006 survey counted 19,830 large ships – more than one per 100 metres of river surveyed – and 1175 +fishing vessels. Not only did collisions with boats and propellers kill many dolphins, the roar of the ships’ engines both ‘blinded’ and deafened them, making echolocation and communication with other dolphins near impossible.

There was also less food for the dolphins. Catches have plummeted to a fifth of what they were in the 1950s due to over fishing and other problems. With industrialisation and the spread of modern agricultural practices, ever more pollution pours into the river each year. The natural banks of the river have been dredged and reinforced with concrete along much of its length to prevent flooding, yet flood plains are crucial for the reproduction of many riverine fishes.

Then there is the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric dam ever built, which has dramatically changed water levels, stratification, currents and sandbanks. Smaller dams along other parts of the river fragmented dolphin popualtions, blocked migration and made important feeding and breeding areas inaccessible.

From as many as 5000 or 6000 dolphins in the 1950s, the population shrank to 400 by around 1980, 200 to 300 by 1985, fewer than 100 in 1990 and just 13 by 1998. The warning signs don’t get more obvious than that. The last authenticated sightings were of a stranded pregnant female found in 2001 and a live animal photographed in 2002. There have also been four unconfirmed reports since then, including the indistinct video filmed in August. And that’s it. There hasn’t been a confirmed sighting for years.

The last organised search was an intensive six-week expedition for 6 November to 13 December 2006 (Biology Letters, DOI:10.1098/rsbl.2007.0292). The survey, by researchers from China, Japan, the US, Switzerland and the UK, used two vessels operating independantly. Covering the entire historical range of the species, they twice scanned the 1669 kilometres of the river with binoculars and listened for telltale squeaks and whistles with high-tech hydrophones. All to no avail.

Importantly, both vessels counted the same number – around 400 – of Yangtze finless porpoises (Neophocaena phocaenoides asiaaeorientalis), a freshwater subspecies unique to the river. This suggests that the scientists really did see everything there was to see, so their failure to find any evidence of Yangtze river dolphins strongly implies that there were none to find. This week the World Conservation Union (IUCN) will change the species’ status from “critically endangered” to “critically endangered (possibly extinct)”.

The original aim of the survey was not to sound the death knell but to rescue any surviving dolphins and translocate them from the river to a 21-kilometre long, 2 kilometre wide oxbow lake in Hubei province, called Tian’ezhou. It has healthy fish stocks and is already home to a small popualtion of about 25 finless porpoises, introduced in 1990. Conditions would almost certainly have suited the dolphins, and the plan was to establish an intensive breeding programme. Ecotourism could have generated much-needed revenue for its upkeep.

It was a good plan, but it was 20 years too late. The idea of moving individuals to a safe reserve was first mooted in the mid-1980s and had been consistently advocated ever since. Douglas Adams and I went to visit one potential reserve, near Tongling, during our visit in 1988. In the 1990s, six capture attempts were made, but with little success. A female was finally caught and relocated to Tian’ezhou in 1995, but she was found dead seven months later, entangled in the escape-prevention nets at the outlet of the reserve.

All along, efforts were hampered by disputes among conservationists, scientists and the Chinese authorities about whether this was the best approach. Admittedly, it would have been an expensive strategy. it required boats to capture the dolphins, helicopters to transfer them, holding pens and veterinary staff to care for them before they could be released into the semi-natural reserve, a proper inventory – and management – of fish stocks, and round-the-clock protection. But the dolphins should have been a conservation priority, so why wasn’t the money forthcoming?

If only everyone had agreed on a recovery programme 20 years ago, when establishing a semi-natural population was still a viable proposition, the outcome could have been very different. Even in the shadow of China’s economic boom and burgeoning population, the baiji could have been saved. Ultimately, it was as much a victim of incompetence, indecision and apathy as it was of environmental deterioration.

In response to the dolphin’s obvious decline, the Chinese government did give it official protection in 1975, making the deliberate catching or killing of a dolphin a punishable offence. It also declared the animal a “national treasure”. In 1992, it set aside five protected areas along roughly 350 kilometres of the Yangtze river and established five baiji protection stations, each with two observers and a small motor boatm to conduct daily patrols, make observations and investigate illegal fishing. In 2001 fishing was banned in parts of the river between April 1 and 30 June.

It all looked good on paper, but it was too little too late and lacked the resources and coordination to work. The patrol boats were old and too slow to catch illegal fishermen, for example, and the laws were poorly enforced.

Meanwhile, international conservation organisations kept calling for action. While some did make a positive contribution to conservation efforts, many didn’t. Others withdrew their support because of the enormitiy of the challenge and the dwindling sense of optimism for the baiji’s chance of survival. It turns my stomach to read their official statements expressing ‘shock’ and ‘dismay’ at the loss of the species, when they were too slow, too cautious and too downright inept to do anything constructive. Despite all their workshops, conventions and meetings on the Yangtze river dolphin, conservation organisations must shoulder a large part of the blame for its demise.

Will we learn any lessons from the loss of the baiji? It’s an important question, because there are other endangered species in the river that could disappear soon unless immediate action is taken. These include the Asian softshell turtle, Chinese alligator, and the smooth-coated otter, as well as the fast-declining Yangtze finless porpoise.

In other parts of the world, we barely have time to mourn the baiji before worrying about two of its closest relatives: the Indus river dolphin, with around 1000 remaining in Pakistan; and the Ganges river dolphin, of which a few thousand remain in western India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. They face remarkably similar threats to their vanished Chinese relative, and their fate could be exactly the same.

How loud, and for how long, do the alarm bells have to ring before we take decisive action? If we can’t save an appealing and charismatic dolphin – one that has lived on Earth for more than 20 million years – what can we save. Mark Carwardine New Scientist #2621

That last paragraph rings so true.

How loud and for how long do the alarm bells have to ring……?

And really, in this depressing ecological age, what can we save?