Sometimes, There's Life After Extinction

Just months after being declared extinct, a Yangtze River dolphin may have been spotted, very much alive. The discovery raises a troubling question for conservation biologists: How do you really know something is extinct?

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A businessman in China says he's made a remarkable discovery in the Yangtze River. It's a large, white dolphin that was formally declared extinct just last month. The discovery, or rediscovery, hasn't been confirmed by scientists, but some conservationists say it shows how difficult it can be to prove that something has disappeared forever.

NPR's John Nielsen has the story.

JOHN NIELSEN: The Yangtze River dolphin has long been one of the most revered animals in China. So says Samuel Turvey of the Zoological Society of London.

Dr. SAMUEL TURVEY (Conservation Biologist, Zoological Society of London): Because it was regarded as the reincarnation of a drowned princess or as a river goddess, a fisherman would pay attention to it to alert them to when there were storms or high waves on the river.

NIELSEN: Turvey says that's partly why the decision to declare this dolphin formally extinct last month made headlines all over the world. Ironically, no sooner had those headlines faded, when the Yangtze dolphin reappeared in the news. Just a few weeks ago, a Chinese businessman aboard a Yangtze ferry saw a strange looking creature jumping out of the water. He told the Reuters news agency that it looked like a Baiji, or a Yangtze Dolphin.

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) It didn't look like a normal kind of fish. I live by the river, so I should know that. It jumped in a beautiful arc out of the water. So I set up my camera by the river, hoping it would appear for the second time.

NIELSEN: He says that's just what it did. In fact, he says, the animal made six more jumps all of which he filmed at long range with his digital camera. It wasn't long before that fuzzy footage started popping up all over the Internet and on TV news programs.

Many of the scientists now looking at this footage say it's very hard to tell whether the Yangtze River dolphin has really risen from the dead. But if it has, it wouldn't be the first time an animal written off as extinct has turned out to be alive and kicking. In the last few years alone, scientists have rediscovered snails, fish, and even some turtles that were supposed to have checked out for good.

Michael Bean of Environmental Defense calls it a reminder of how hard it can be to prove that a rare species is really gone.

Mr. MICHAEL BEAN (Chair of the Wildlife Program, Environmental Defense): Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. So that is to say just because we haven't found something does not mean it's not there.

NIELSEN: Bean is a lawyer who specializes in endangered species. He says, when experts are too quick to declare a species extinct, it can create all kinds of problems. Governments can stop protecting habitats and funding for research can disappear. That is why conservationists are loath to give up on any particular plant or animal.

For example, take the black-footed ferret, a small predator that eats prairie dogs in the Great Plains.

Mr. BEAN: It was thought to be extinct in the wild until a ranch dog brought a dead specimen back to its ranch house in 1981, I believe. And that led to the discovery of the last remaining wild population of ferrets.

NIELSEN: Ferrets were bred in captivity and eventually reintroduced to the wild. Bean says they're now doing pretty well. He also says this is a story that should warm the hearts of Yangtze River dolphin lovers.

Mr. BEAN: Even if you only discover a single specimen, it's unlikely that you will have found that the only surviving member of that species. So if you find one, that's a pretty good reason to expect there are others.

NIELSEN: But Samuel Turvey of the Zoological Society of London says he doesn't think that's how the story of the Yangtze River dolphin is going to turn out.

Dr. TURVEY: If I'm going to be proven wrong about anything in my career, I want it to be this. But I sadly don't think the video is anything alike good enough.

NIELSEN: Turvey says he might change his mind if several other Yangtze River dolphins were to be discovered. But he fears that that would take an all out search that nobody seems to want to pay for.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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