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Now There Are Only 30 Of These Animals Left

"How sad is it that we could wipe out a species before we have had the chance to really know it?"

The vaquita almost doesn't look real. Only about 5 feet long, these tiny porpoises are silvery gray, and have dark rings around their eyes and dark patches across their lips, making them look more like children's book illustrations than actual animals.

But the vaquita is a real animal, although the species is racing towards extinction at breakneck speed. This week, the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) announced that there are only 30 vaquita porpoises left, making them the most endangered cetacean in the world. Since 2015, the species has declined by nearly 50 percent.

"The situation is absolutely dire, and we are on the brink of losing the vaquita forever," Kate O'Connell, a marine wildlife consultant for the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), told The Dodo. "Only drastic action will save the species from extinction."

A long vaquita in the Gulf of California
Vaquitas in the Gulf of California in 2008 | Thomas A. Jefferson/VIVA Vaquita

This shy, magical-looking creature is known to live in only one part of the world - the Sea of Cortez in the Upper Gulf of California, near Mexico. But vaquitas were only discovered in the 1950s, so scientists know very little about their life history or behavior. (There are also very few photos of vaquitas, and illustrations are used to show what they look like up close.)

"We've heard the vaquita more than we've seen live ones, and acoustic monitoring has been a key part of studying these animals," O'Connell said. "How sad is it that we could wipe out a species before we have had the chance to really know it?"

A long vaquita in the Gulf of California
Vaquitas in the Gulf of California in 2008 | Thomas A. Jefferson / VIVA Vaquita

Fortunately, scientists do know what's causing vaquitas to go extinct. The main culprit is gillnets, a type of net used by fishermen in the area. When fishermen release gillnets into the ocean, vaquitas will become entangled in them and drown.

Note: The following photo is a recreation with a model, not an actual porpoise.

In an effort to save the vaquita, the Mexican government placed a two-year ban on gillnets in the Gulf of California in April 2015. However, illegal gillnet fishing for another endangered species - a fish called a totoaba - continued in the area.

"Totoaba swim bladders are highly prized in Asian markets, and sell for astronomical sums of money, and a black market trade has sprung up which has added to the pressure on the vaquita," O'Connell said.

The temporary two-year ban on gillnet fishing expires this coming April.

The only way to save the vaquita is to place a permanent ban on gillnet fishing, O'Connell said, and for better regulation of fishing practices in the area.

Vaquita porpoises in the Gulf of California
Vaquitas in the Gulf of California in 2008 | Thomas A. Jefferson/VIVA Vaquita

For the past two years, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been working with the Mexican government to patrol the Gulf of California and deter illegal fishing, and the group is currently in the middle of its third campaign, Operation Milagro III, to help save the vaquita.

"Saving the vaquita is a priority for Sea Shepherd," Captain Paul Watson, founder and president of Sea Shepherd, told The Dodo. "We have the opportunity to save the vaquita from extinction. I am confident that with the support of the Mexican Navy we can stop the poachers and we will give this campaign all that we can to ensure the survival of this species."

A pair of vaquitas in the Gulf of California
Vaquitas in the Gulf of California in 2008 | Thomas A. Jefferson/VIVA Vaquita

While the situation currently looks pretty dire, O'Connell believes there's reason for hope.

"There have been other species of marine mammals that have recovered from equally low population numbers," O'Connell said. "For example, the northern elephant seal had been hunted to near extinction, with some estimates putting the population as low as 20 individuals; they now number well over 100,000."

A long vaquita in the Gulf of California
A vaquita seen by the Sea Shepherd crew in 2015 | Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

The vaquita may be able to rebound, but the situation is currently critical for the species, and time is of the essence.

To help save the vaquita from extinction, you can support Sea Shepherd's work by making a donation.