How China is causing the extinction of the ‘panda of the sea’

Vaquita Swimming in the Wild

Will we be able to save the world’s rarest marine mammal from extinction? Source: Wikimedia Commons.

YEARS AGO, the panda of the land was endangered. Now, the panda of the sea is near extinction.

China may have put in decades of work by conservationists to save the giant panda, which saw a population rebound in the country.

But the Chinese’s appetite for exotic food is killing what’s left of the world’s rarest marine mammal – the panda of the sea.

What is the panda of the sea?

Weighing in at less than 100 pounds and five-foot-long, a panda of the sea is a small, shy porpoise also known as the vaquita.

It is the world’s smallest cetaceans, the order that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

It has a large dark ring around its eyes, which gives it its panda of the sea nickname.

The dark patches on its lips form a thin line from the mouth to the pectoral fins, which makes it look like it is smiling coyly.

The vaquita’s dorsal surface is dark gray, sides pale gray, and ventral surface white with long, light gray markings.

It travels in inconspicuous duos and eats mostly shrimp and squid.

However, the vaquita is so shy that it avoids jumping, splashing, or slapping their tails.

It also avoids the rumble of boat engines and will quickly swim away if a boat approaches, which has made it a headache for researchers to study.

It is extremely bashful and cute – all 30 of them.

“This little porpoise wasn’t discovered until 1958 and a little over half a century later, we are on the brink of losing them forever. Vaquita are often caught and drowned in gillnets used by illegal fishing operations in marine protected areas within Mexico’s Gulf of California,” WWF said.

“The population has dropped drastically in the last few years.”

What is killing the panda of the sea?

Or rather, who?

Thanks to Chinese and other East Asian diners’ appetite for fish maw, the swim bladder of the totoaba (also critically endangered), the vaquita became collateral damage.

The Chinese believe that the fish maw (also called “aquatic cocaine”) has medicinal qualities when really, it is just a gas-filled organ that helps control the fish’s buoyancy.

On the black market run by Mexican drug cartels and Chinese crime gangs, the totoaba’s swim bladder is worth more than gold – Hong Kong is a center of that trade.

Fishermen trap them by using illegal vertical gillnets, which will also trap the vaquita, the “unintentional by-catch”, causing them to drown.

This has caused the vaquita population to decline by almost 90 percent in just 17 years.

This handout photo released by WWF shows a comparison between a vaquita (bottom) and a totoaba (top). Source: AFP PHOTO / WWF-OMAR VIDAL

In December 2017, out of sheer desperation, a dramatic last-ditch effort to save the vaquita was launched.

Scientists hatched a US$4 million rescue plan to capture the remaining creatures and protecting them in a sanctuary.

It also involved conservationists patrolling the gulf with the help of dolphins trained by the US Navy to pinpoint other cetaceans.

The only problem is, no one has ever tried to capture, transport, or care for a vaquita before. Alas, it ended in heartbreak.

“The first one caught, a juvenile, was quickly released after veterinarians said it showed signs of stress. The second, a breeding-age female caught last weekend, died just a few hours after being placed in a protective floating pen,” The Washington Post reported.

Realizing that they could be driving it closer to extinction, the scientists agreed to shut down the program.

Vaquita Panda of the Sea

The panda of the sea swimming in the wild. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

What can be done to prevent the disappearance of a species before our eyes?

The Mexican government and scientific community are still trying to develop an unprecedented rescue and relocation operation that they believe is the best hope for the vaquita’s existence.

Tighter laws against illegal fishing have been enforced, as well as a ban on gillnets.

Meanwhile, Hollywood A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio and known environmental activist will also be using his star power to raise awareness about the vaquita’s diminishing population via upcoming documentary Vaquita – Sea of Ghosts.

Vaquita – Sea of Ghosts is a feature documentary that follows humanity’s last and desperate effort to rescue this beautiful and mysterious species from man-made extinction.

It dives deeply into the dark realms of international trafficking syndicates and drug cartels, to uncover what led to this tragedy, to expose the villains and document this ultimate fight for survival.