Vaquita - 'world's rarest' animal you've never heard of caught on camera

The survey results suggest the vaquita is still at imminent risk of extinction.

Vaquita could be the world’s most endangered animal as its population has plummeted due to illegal fishing. In May, specialised surveyors returned to the porpoise’s tiny refuge in the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico, to see if any still survive.

On Wednesday (local time) government authorities released the results of their 17-day count at an international press conference. The outcome was hailed as “great news” and the species' ongoing survival was deemed "miraculous".

The survey team utilised two ships that carried trained acoustic and visual spotters. While animals were seen on 16 occasions, it's believed the same individuals were recorded multiple times.

A vaquita fin can be seen in the bottom right. A boat in the far background.
A vaquita spotted on May 11 by surveyors. Source: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

How many vaquita did the surveyors see?

The team included independent scientists, Sea Shepherd crew and Mexican conservation officers. They were able to film and photograph the dorsal fins of multiple animals.

The estimate from their survey is that the population has remained steady at 10 to 13 individuals, including between one and two calves. The result is roughly the same as the last major count which occurred in 2021.

Conservation group Center for Biological Diversity warned the low numbers mean the vaquita is still at risk of extinction and called on the Mexican government to do more to protect them. The non-profit's Mexico representative Alex Olivera believes there is a “lack of enforcement” from authorities to stop the illegal use of deadly gill nets in their habitat.

“This is encouraging news and it shows that vaquita are survivors. But we still need urgent conservation efforts to save these tiny porpoises from extinction,” he said.

Two visual summeries of observations made by the acoustic detection.
A summary of observations made by the acoustic detection. Source: Supplied
  • The survey took place between May 10 and May 26.

  • Two ships, the Seahorse and Sirena de la Noche were used during the operation.

  • Scientists recorded 61 acoustic encounters and 16 sightings.

  • All animals sighted appeared healthy.

  • Researchers believe there is a 76 per cent probability between 10 and 13 individuals survive.

A dead vaquita on the sand.
Photographs like this archival photo showing a full vaquita are rare. Source: WWF Netherlands

How did the vaquita numbers get so low?

Mexican cartels, Chinese smugglers, corruption and illegal fishing have resulted in vaquita numbers plummeting.

In May, the US government warned the Mexico had not done enough to protect vaquita, raising the prospect of fishing sanctions.

Close up of a vaquita fin.
A vaquita spotted on May 20 by the surveyors. Source: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Genetic diversity suggests vaquita were never abundant, and it’s believed 2000 and 4000 individuals were left in 1900. Twenty-five years ago there were still an estimated 500 vaquita left.

What's killing the vaquita?

A captive breeding effort in 2017 was abandoned because it stressed the animals, resulting in one death. One glimmer of hope can be found in a recent study that suggests vaquita are breeding more often than recently thought; once a year as opposed to every two years.

Both visual and acoustic survey methods were used. Source: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
Both visual and acoustic survey methods were used. Source: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

There are even some conservationists who hypothesise the remaining vaquita may have learnt to survive by avoiding deadly gill nets which have been the primary driver of their demise.

Gill nets are devastatingly effective at catching fish, including the highly-prized endangered totoaba, which are similar in size to vaquita.

In 2022, Mexican authorities sunk 193 concrete blocks covered in metal hooks which they hope will snag illegal gill nets used in vaquita habitat. They have reported a 90 per cent decrease in gill netting, raising hope the species may not be driven to extinction.

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