You’d be hard pressed to find an animal more adorable than the vaquita porpoise—a diminutive, sea-dwelling creature so cute, its nickname is “the panda of the sea.” Although the mini mammals might make you swoon, that glee could be short lived. As Charlie Wood reports for the Christian Science Monitor, a new report suggests that fewer than 30 vaquita porpoises are left in the wild.
The report, which was issued by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, states that only 30 of the creatures likely remain, a 49 percent loss from the number estimated just a year prior. That means that the species, which is considered critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, could soon go extinct. Wood reports that the animals are tracked using underwater microphones that allow scientists to locate them based on their distinctive clicks.
Vaquita porpoises, also known as Gulf porpoises, got their name (it means “little cow” in Spanish) from their tiny stature. They are endemic to just the northern end of the Gulf of California, the body of water that separates Baja California from the rest of Mexico. There, the animals—characterized by one scientist as “small, shy, cryptic, and rare”—snack on a variety of fish and swim at a pace that’s much slower than that of their dolphin cousins. Their black-rimmed eyes and ridiculous cuteness are responsible for their panda nickname.
Humans, however, aren’t directly killing the vaquita. Rather, as Deutsche Welle’s Harald Franzen reports, their fates are intertwined with the totoaba, a Gulf-endemic species of fish. Though commercial fishing of the totoaba has been outlawed since the 1970s, it’s in high demand in China due to the swim bladder that makes them float. The bladders, which play a role in traditional Chinese medicine, are coveted by wealthy Chinese people who can pay up to $8,100 for a single specimen. Vaquitas and totoabas are similar in size, so they both get caught in the gill nets that poachers put out for the fish.
Now, reports Wood, an international coalition will try to save the vaquita—and other animals threatened by the illegal gill nets—in the Gulf of Mexico. The Mexican government, the U.S. Navy, and conservation groups plan to fight illegal poaching and try to save the vaquita. The National Marine Mammal Foundation notes in a press release that the plan includes not only sending some elusive vaquitas to a temporary sanctuary, but also working to prevent poaching and remove illegal nets. Other mammals are even getting in on the plan: The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Sandra Dibble writes that dolphins owned by the U.S. Navy have already been trained to find vaquitas and will be used to conduct searches in San Felipe starting in May.
Gill nets don’t just endanger porpoises; they also hurt animals like sea tortoises and humpback whales. So saving the vaquita could help other creatures, too. Whether they’re as cute as the tiny Gulf porpoise remains to be seen, but even the ugliest sea animal is worth saving.