On Friday the 19th May, as it was Endangered Species Day, copious amounts of information regarding the importance of safeguarding populations of the world’s endangered species could be found all over social media. As usual, the most notable species featured were the elephants, tigers and rhino species of the world. Without disregarding their importance – for example, the conservation of African elephants is a cause I hold very dear to my own heart – there exists a plethora of other, incredibly threatened species, that are on the verge of extinction and you may be completely unaware of their existence.
For example, are you aware of the rarest marine mammal in the world? You could probably guess that it’s a cetacean. Becoming entangled in vast fishing nets, ingesting plastic and being targeted by illegal fishing operations, all pose major threats to cetacean species around the world. Principally for the species in question here, is the threat of fishing nets. Once entangled in fishing nets, this little porpoise is often unable to free itself, and therefore becomes trapped and suffocates to death – as cetaceans are mammals, they are unable to breathe without coming up to the surface for air.
The vaquita is the rarest marine mammal in the world, and there’s a high chance you don’t even know what it looks like. With an estimated population of only 30 individuals remaining, this tiny porpoise is on the edge of extinction. Worse than that to me, is that this species, like plenty of others across the globe, will fall into extinction with many people blissfully unaware of its existence in the first place. We have only known of the vaquita’s existence since it’s discovery in 1958, yet less than a century later it is already slipping through our fingers. Hardly known to science due to its preference for travelling individually or with a partner, rather than in a large pod like other cetaceans, vaquitas can be difficult to find.
But why have population numbers dropped by half for the past nine years? Declines within the vaquita population have been attributed to the increased trade of swim bladders of the endangered totoaba fish. As illegal fishing practices have heightened in the Gulf of Mexico for the harvesting of the totoaba’s swim bladder, the elusive vaquita has quite literally become trapped in this affair. Efforts by the Mexican government to ban the usage of these nets and in some cases, to try to persuade fishermen to not fish within the vaquita’s range by paying them off, do not appear to have worked.
Opinions from experts vary on the future of the vaquita, with many stating that they believe only captivity will protect its future. There are obviously mixed opinions on the potential of captivity safeguarding a species future, as a captive environment can have detrimental impacts on the psychology and health of individuals – infamously, the psychotic behaviour displayed by killer whales, such as Tilikum, at SeaWorld facilities. Despite this, the potential of captivity in terms of breeding programmes with the hope of reintroduction into the wild in the future is undeniable. In the case of the vaquita, captive breeding programmes may be the only hope for the survival of their species.
On the flip side, unfortunately other scientists believe that all attempts at saving the future of this species have failed. An article from April 2017 details that although capturing the remaining individuals may be their only hope, it is also feared that there may be only several individuals left – despite their official population being estimated at 30 individuals. That said, it could potentially take years for scientists to confirm this, and by then, it will almost certainly be too late.
There have been spectacular efforts to save the vaquita, with the President of Mexico stating that “even if there is only one vaquita left, we will do everything we can”. But it seems to me that, as in most cases, ‘everything’ is not enough. Tragically, the vaquita will be lost, or may have already been lost, due to direct impacts by human activities. Throughout our lifetimes we will certainly hear of similar stories for a multitude of other species if we do not try to take action now, whilst populations of other species are relatively stable.
If there is anything we can take from the devastating loss of the vaquita for conservationists and environmental-enthusiasts globally, it is that acting now, rather than when the situation becomes dire, is almost certainly the way to rescue species from the brink of extinction.