Humans and Health

Ecological Disaster from Hydroelectric Dams

One of the rarest species in the world is now one-step closer to extinction after the last known female died on Saturday 13th April 2019.

There are now only 3 known individuals of the Yangtze giant soft-shell turtle left. The 90-year-old female which died on Saturday was one of only two of the turtles in captivity. The other two turtles known to exist live in Vietnam in the wild and are of unknown gender. Scientists had tried to artificially inseminate the female turtle the day before she died, when attempts at encouraging the captive pair to breed naturally failed. Despite the turtle seeming healthy after the procedure, it died whilst recuperating from anasthesia. The only hope for the species now is that the two turtles in the wild are of different genders and meet, or that additional members of the species exist that have yet to be identified. Samples of the turtle’s ovarian tissue have been frozen for future research.

“prevent sub-populations of the species from meeting”

The Yangtze turtle’s natural habitat was inland Chinese waterways, especially the Yangtze river. However, due to hunting, pollution, and disruption caused by new hydroelectric dams the turtle’s population has diminished to this critical level.

“at the cost of intricate river ecosystems”

The Chinese government has been building hydroelectric dams at a rapid rate in an effort to curb their greenhouse gas emissions associated with electricity generation. Although these dams can ostensibly provide cleaner electricity, they do so at the cost of intricate river ecosystems which are destroyed by the altered flows of the rivers.

It is not just the Yangtze turtles that have been affected by the new hydroelectric dams. In November 2017 a new great ape was discovered: the Tapanulia orangutan of northern Sumatra. Despite being newly discovered, it is also the most endangered great ape, with fewer than 800 individuals estimated to be alive. Despite this, Sinohydro, a Chinese state-owned hydropower company, has plans to build a dam which would require destroying a forest in the Batang Toru eco-system which would directly affect 10-20% of the Tapanulia population and prevent sub-populations of the species from meeting.

An environmental activist group in Indonesia filed a lawsuit with the courts in North Sumartra urging them to withdraw the permit allowing the Batang Toru hydropower project to go ahead. Unfortunately, this lawsuit was rejected by the courts on the grounds that a revised environmental impact analysis followed the required legal procedures and was in line with regulations. However, the activist group argued that locals weren’t involved in this analysis and that the ecological problems were overlooked.

As the energy demands of human civilisation increases and we become more aware of the environmental impact of fossil fuel use, governments will look for more sustainable sources. It is important we learn from the cases of the Yangtze giant softshell turtle and the Tapnaulia orangutan and consider the ecological consequences of the infrastructure we build.

Matthew Bird

Articles Used: [1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/15/last-female-world-rarest-yangtze-giant-softshell-turtle-species-dies-chinese-zoo

[2] https://e360.yale.edu/features/chinas_great_dam_boom_an_assault_on_its_river_systems

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/radical-conservation/2018/apr/23/worlds-newest-great-ape-threatened-by-chinese-dam

[4] https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2019/03/04/court-rejects-challenge-to-batang-toru-dam.html

Featured image courtesy of Dmitrii Ivanov via Flickr. No changes were made to this image. Image license found here.

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