Top Ten Wildlife Areas We Love (and Would Hate to Lose)

A glimpse of the fate most commonly befalling the shy vaquita (Alejandro Robles/courtesy Conservation International)

Why We Love It:

From the world's largest dolphin, we go to the smallest porpoise. Growing to a mere five feet and weighing around 100 pounds, the vaquita ("little cow") is one of the most elusive marine mammals in the ocean. To date, only one picture of a live vaquita's face has been taken. They are so elusive that scientists are forced to monitor them acoustically.

Where It's Happiest:

Vaquitas are found solely in Mexico's Gulf of California, near the mouth of the Colorado River. Shy loners, vaquitas generally shun social groups, though mothers stay with calves until they are mature. They feed primarily on fish.

The Cold, Hard Numbers:

The best estimates suggest that fewer than 600 vaquitas exist today. A study released in 1998 surmised that over the previous decade vaquita populations had decreased 15 percent each year. "Their population is so depleted even one death a year is too much," says Karen Baragona, director of the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) Whales and Dolphins Program.

Who's to Blame:

Over the past two decades, fishing and shrimping in the area have exploded, and fishing nets are thought to be the main factors in the vaquita's steep decline.

When It's Gone:

Fishermen may be shooting themselves in the foot. The vaquita is one of the Gulf of Mexico's prime predators, and eliminating it may reek havoc on resident fish populations, causing them first to explode, then decline when food stocks are overburdened.

Signs of Life:

The WWF is trying to find solutions agreeable both to environmentalists and local fishermen. The most promising is an innovative, environmentally safe shrimp pot that would replace nets. It has been tested by WWF biologists with some success in California, and tests will start this summer in the vaquita's habitat.

Published: 18 Mar 2004 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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