It is not unusual for a plant or animal to become extinct. The average species survives about four million years and 99.99% of all the species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct.
So what’s so traumatic about the baiji dolphin that researchers, having searched for it for six weeks in its home, the Yangtze River, are sure is gone forever? The baiji dolphin is a mammal, the most complex and intelligent of all animals on Earth. Mammals give birth to live young and care for them through a long childhood. The baiji dolphin was a shy, intelligent creature that has managed to survive for at least twenty million years, about five times as long as the average species.
This dolphin species did not die from the “usual suspects.” Earth has hosted at least five major extinction events, and thousands of smaller ones. Some have been caused by meteor and comet impacts, some result from massive changes in global temperatures, as Earth shifts between ice ages and weather even warmer than it is today. Tsunamis, and supervolcanoes, epidemic disease and atmospheric changes have all taken their massive tolls.
But the baiji dolphin has died out because of human activity. Human activity polluted its river, overfished the waters, and disoriented the sonar system the dolphin used to navigate and find food. Human activity has unquestionably resulted in the demise of other species, but until now it is unlikely that we knew what we were doing. This time we did.
There are hundreds more mammals – including gorillas, apes, whales, dolphins, monkeys, lemurs, orang-u-tans, tigers, lions, polar bears and pandas – which are also endangered because human activity is destroying the only habitats in which they can live.
Many Christians believe God gave dominion over the animals to Adam and Eve and so responsibility for their welfar to mankind. For some people, then, killing them off is a sin. For others, it is a merely tragedy with terrible consequences for life on Earth, including human life. Whatever ones persuasion, there are powerful reasons for trying to halt this deathly parade. We won’t stop them all. But by deciding to try to slow down environmental destruction, we can slow it down.
And that can matter a lot.