Vaquita: Hunt for world's rarest animal you've never heard of begins

At the last count, no more than 13 remained on the planet. Have vaquita survived another year?

Vaquita are the world’s rarest animal, and according to the 2023 count only between 10 and 13 remain. A year later, it remains unclear how many of the little-known porpoise species have survived.

In 2021, Yahoo News exclusively revealed the species was not yet extinct, despite its numbers plummeting due to illegal gillnet fishing controlled by Mexico’s cartels. While the nets target a threatened fish called totoaba whose body parts are traded as a commodity in China, over the last 25 years fishermen have also inadvertently snared vaquita, causing their numbers to plummet from 500 at the turn of the century.

Vaquita survive in a tiny 300 square kilometre refuge in the Upper Gulf of California, and Sea Shepherd announced on Wednesday (local time) that a 21-day search named Operation Milagro is set to begin on May 5.

The multi-agency taskforce will be supported by the Mexican Navy and include more than a dozen highly trained and experienced observers with decades of experience studying them.

The Gulf of California. A vaquita's dorsal fin can be seen in the foreground. A boat in the background.
Vaquita are notoriously elusive but they can be identified by their dorsal fins. Can you spot them? Source: Melissa Roma/Sea Shepherd
Close-up picture of two vaquita in the foreground.
There are few images of vaquita as sightings are rare. Source: Tom Jefferson

“The 2024 survey that we are announcing today will be the most updated scientific analysis of the Vaquita population since last year,” Sea Shepherd CEO Pritam Singh said in a statement. “The results of this survey will help guide the next steps in our growing collaboration with the Mexican Government to protect the Vaquita.”

Vaquita still facing extinction despite sightings in 2023

While the Mexican Government is stepping up efforts to protect vaquita, its officials have previously been blamed for allowing numbers to dwindle because it has not enforced bans on gill net usage.

After the 2023 survey, Conservation group Center for Biological Diversity warned vaquita remained on the brink of extinction and called on authorities to better protect them.

“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,” the non-profit's Mexico representative Alex Olivera said.

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