Efforts to save the vaquita by capturing the last remaining of the Mexican porpoises in the wild have come to halt after the one that experts captured died after a short time in captivity.
The capture of a young six-month-old vaquita calf [Photo by SEMARNAT]
Vaquitas are the smallest, most critically endangered, and rarest of all marine mammal species. According to researchers, it’s likely that there may only be less than 30 individual vaquitas in the wild today. This species was discovered only in 1958, and now we are unfortunately down to such a small extant population. Vaquitas frequently get caught in illegal gillnets and drown afterward--this, unfortunately, has drastically reduced vaquita populations over the past several years.
Last month, Mexican authorities and conservation groups launched a high-risk, last-ditch plan to save the vaquitas. They created a project called Vaquita Conservation, Protection and Recovery (VaquitaCPR), which aims to capture the remaining 30 or less vaquitas and keep them in captivity until the survival of their species is no longer under threat. The intent was to keep the animals in “sea pens” that will keep them away from gillnets and other things that may harm them.
The vaquita calf in the enclosure, before it had to be released [Photo by VaquitaCPR]
The project involved a team of some of the best veterinarians, marine mammal experts, and technicians. Still, even with a dream team of experts, the success of the project wasn’t certain. Of course, every measure was taken to ensure that the project would be successful.
However, the project was met with bad luck right off the bat. They first caught a six-month-old calf, but its capture stressed the young vaquita out so badly that the conservation team quickly decided to release it back to the wild. More recently, the team again managed to capture another vaquita, this time an adult female. "From the moment of capture, the vaquita was under constant care and observation for its health and safety," VaquitaCPR said in a statement.
Unfortunately, the captured female died soon after she was captured. When the animal showed signs of stress as well, the team made the decision to release it back to wild. However, according to the VaquitaCPR, “the release attempt was unsuccessful”. A team of six veterinarians labored for three hours to save the marine mammal, to no avail.
Frances Gulland, the lead veterinarian, said that the vaquita seemed calm when it was captured and seemed like it was adapting to its new enclosure. However, it eventually died after suffering two cardiac arrests, about six hours after it was captured.
The floating sea pen [Photo by Kerry Coughlin/National Marine Mammal Foundation]
Though there is still no official cause of death, scientists are assuming that the female vaquita died of stress. As a result, the project may be the last form of close contact between humans and vaquitas for a while. This phase of the project is also at an end, unfortunately unsuccessful.
The people involved in the project, though disappointed, express no regrets. They were confident that they did everything according to protocol, and the outcome was one that no one wanted. Also, they now know that this particular technique of saving the species is not just unsuccessful, but also potentially harmful to vaquitas. They now intend to try other avenues in order to continue efforts to save these critically endangered marine mammals.
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