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Tiny Mexican porpoise on the brink of extinction can only be saved by captivity

Captivity is the only thing that can save the Mexican vaquita, who are already extremely genetically inbred.

Tweet by @Leonardo DiCaprio Leonardo DiCaprio / Twitter Leonardo DiCaprio / Twitter / Twitter

ILLEGAL POACHING, LOGGING and fishing of sometimes critically endangered species is taking place in nearly half of the world’s most protected natural sites, environmental campaigners WWF have warned.

The species most at risk because of illegal activity within natural world heritage sites is probably the vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise, which is indigenous to Mexico’s Gulf of California, Colman O’Criodain, WWF’s wildlife policy manager, told AFP.

Efforts to boost population numbers of the animal have failed, which leaves captivity breeding as the only way to save the sea creatures.

While the vaquita itself is not being fished illegally, it is being caught in nets used to poach the totoaba – a giant Mexican fish coveted in China for its swim bladder, which itself is considered a threatened species.

“When I started working on the issue of vaquita two years ago, there were 96 left. Now it is less than 30,” O’Criodain said, adding that at the current rate the tiny porpoise could be extinct within a year.

The vaquita has been described, by some of the few people who have seen one of the elusive porpoises alive, as the smiley-faced sea panda because of the dark outlines around its mouth and the black circles around its eyes.

11179822325_a1d0273117_z A rare photo of two live vaquita. Lauren Packard / Paul Olsen for NOAA Lauren Packard / Paul Olsen for NOAA / Paul Olsen for NOAA

In a recent feature on the creature published in the New York Times, experts and conservationists who’ve been working to save the vaquita say that their demise is directly caused by human intervention.

Robert L. Brownell Jr, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said this might be one battle the fishermen had won.
“The fishermen just think, ‘Oh, good, if we can get rid of the last one, then we can get on and keep fishing.’” If that hasn’t already happened, many scientists now believe, it may soon.

According to the WWF report, poaching of vulnerable and endangered animal species such as elephants, rhinos and tigers occurs in 42 of the UNESCO-listed natural sites, while illegal logging of rosewood, ebony and other valuable plant species happens in 26 of them.

Illegal fishing, including of sharks and rays occurs in 18 of 39 listed marine coastal world heritage sites, it said.

‘Double outrage’

Such illegal activities inside what should be the best-protected sites on the planet are “a double outrage,” said O’Criodain, who used to work as an adviser to the Irish government.

“We’re talking about very iconic species, and we are also talking about iconic sites,” he said, demanding more efforts at the national and international level to beat the trend.

But it is difficult to fight the illegal wildlife trade, which rakes in between €14.1-18.8 billion annually, making it the fourth largest illegal global trade, after drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking, according to UN numbers.

At the same time, the illegal timber trade, which is responsible for up to 90% of all deforestation in major tropical countries, is valued at between $30-100 billion annually.

There are large economic interests in bringing an end to such illegal activities, especially inside world heritage sites, WWF said.

This is because poaching and trafficking inside these sites threatens not only species, but also livelihoods and entire tourist industries.

© AFP 2017

Read: ‘Zero prospect’ of recovery after Great Barrier Reef decimated by the heat and Cyclone Debbie

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