Having spent two summers researching amphibians and reptiles, I have
a poster of endangered frogs and salamanders on my wall what one might call a healthy fascination with these endearing ectotherms. Being thus inclined, my eyes lit up when I stumbled on The New York Times’ latest feature, “China’s Turtles, Emblems of a Crisis.” It’s part six of their series China: Choking on Growth, in which they “examin[e] the human toll, global impact and political challenge of China’s epic pollution crisis.”
So, China and pollution, nothing new right? Another species on its way out — isn’t a different one kicking the bucket every 90 minutes or so these days?
Well, this near-bucket-kicking Chinese turtle nearly had Me: Choking on Tears. The scenario: only two, count ‘em, two Yangtze giant soft-shell turtles currently exist on this planet. That’s it: one female turtle in a zoo in Changsha, China, and one male in a zoo in Suzhou. I know the romantics out there are reaching for their hankies at the unlikely prospects for these pollution-crossed lovers.
Still, you might ask again, so what?
Why care if these turtles never get it on and all-too-soon swim up to that big pond in the sky? Well, let the experts tell you: imminent extinction of a species is nothing to take lightly. Especially when it’s an indicator of other, often more far-reaching, problems at hand: unrestricted urban growth and industrial pollution, the rapid conversion of wilderness habitat to city and farmland, and poor or no execution of wildlife conservation programs, for starters.
These last two doomed turtles have me all choked up because of one overarching word: power. The power to decimate entire species, often without ever having known they existed. The power to clear a landscape and repopulate it with tin-roofed shanties powered and powdered by coal dust. The power to choose life or to choose death for entire ecosystems, entire ways of life. The power to affect humans and this planet in ways subtle and sneaky.
“Biodiversity and human well-being just cannot be separated.”
Dr. Kaveh Zahedi of the World Conservation Monitoring Centre made this statement two and a half years ago, after the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment reported that current rates of extinction (which are 100-1000 times the fossil record’s normal “background level”) would, to put it delicately, screw over the chances of extracting the global poor from their current state.
China undeniably constitutes a substantial portion of the global poor while simultaneously claiming a disproportionately high concentration of biological diversity within its borders (known as “hotspots“), creating a perilous precipice from which the Chinese people could easily plummet if preservation isn’t properly practiced (the “p” button on my keyboard must be stuck).
I’m not implying that restoration of a species is a cinch these days — either ecologically or politically. The U.S.’s current administration boasts the lowest annual rate of listing endangered species (PDF) in the history of the Endangered Species Act (1973). I mean, what a record.
And yet it’s so frustrating to care so much about the value of biological diversity, or even the value of a single species, in the face of the massive Chinese economic machine. I recall sitting in class last year while my Aquatic Conservation professor predicted that within the year, the Yangtze River dolphin would be extinct (needless to say, he was dead on). This 20-million-year-old freshwater dolphin, revered as “goddess of the Yangtze” and indicator species of the river’s health, couldn’t compete with the 6 percent of the world’s population dependent upon the Yangtze.
Today, China is betting on two 80-plus-year-old turtles sexing it up to save an entire species. Let’s hope for everyone’s sake this isn’t their long-term conservation plan.