Extinction Blog

Can international cooperation save the vaquita?

It's a dire time for the vaquita, a rare porpoise living off the Gulf of California in Mexico. Just 150 vaquitas remain, and that number shrinks each year as dozens are caught and killed in fishermen's' nets. Conservationists fear they have just one or two years to save the species from extinction.

Mexico has already invested $200 million over the last two years to try to save the vaquita. The government has attempted to persuade 4,000 local fishermen to use nets that would allow the vaquita to escape, or to give up fishing altogether. About 800 have already taken the government up on its offer.

This week, Mexico's efforts gained two valuable partners: the United States and Canada. The Commission for Environmental Cooperation has developed an international strategy, the North American Conservation Action Plan, which will try to use resources from all three nations not only to preserve the vaquita from extinction but to maintain economic viability of the human communities near its habitat.

One of the plan's first steps is establishment of an oceanic network of acoustic monitoring devices. The network, being put in place by a U.S. research ship, will attempt to locate and count the remaining vaquita, which could further protect them from fishermen.

Will this rare international cooperation succeed? Let's hope. They only have a few years to make a difference.

The race to save Mexico's 'water monster'

Scientists think they have just five years to save the axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) from extinction. This foot-long salamander, known locally as the "water monster," was an important piece of Aztec culture and diet for centuries. But now modern pollution and habitat loss have almost completely wiped the species out.

Axolotl populations have dropped a shocking 99% in the last decade, from "1,500 per square mile in 1998 to a mere 25 per square mile this year," according to a report from the Associated Press.

The increasingly rare salamanders -- now classified as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List -- face threats on all fronts. Their homes are being drained to sate Mexico City's thirsty population, and the water that's left is heavily polluted. Meanwhile, introduced species like the African tilapia have come in to not only steal the axolotl's food, but also eat its young.

The one place axolotls are doing well is in captivity, specifically in the laboratory, where scientists are studying their unique regenerative abilities. The AP says, "Axolotls have played key roles in research on regeneration, embryology, fertilization and evolution."

Too bad they can't regenerate their own habitat or their population.

It took humans just a few decades to destroy their habitat and quite possibly the entire species. Let's hope we can turn things around in time before they disappear forever.

You can read a lot more about axolotls here.

Wolves in the cross-hairs -- again!

Once protected, then not, then protected again, the gray wolf has had a bumpy year. Now the Bush Administration has announced it will once again try to remove Endangered Species Act protections from gray wolves in the northern Rockies.

Seriously? After their previous attempt, when the courts ruled that the move to end protections for wolves was "arbitrary and capricious," the Bush Admin is now trying again, using the exact same criteria as they did before.

Of course, those "criteria" have few scientific merits, and basically boil down to "we want to let people build things where wolves are living."

America has invested millions of dollars in wolf recovery over the last few decades, and the species still has a long way to go before it can be considered safe. Scientists agree that a population of several thousand wolves is needed to maintain genetic diversity, and that isolated groups, especially in Yellowstone, need to access to other wolf packs for healthy breeding.

The Bush team is also still trying to push through its disemboweling of the Endangered Species Act before they leave office. Let's hope they fail on all counts.

More violence threatens mountain gorillas in Congo

Rebels have seized and vandalized the headquarters of rangers protecting the last population of mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This comes as fighting between the Congo army and rebel forces escalates, and as the world's largest peacekeeping force (17,000 UN soldiers) sits in wait of the ability act.

More than 50 park rangers were forced to feel the Gorilla Park headquarters this weekend. Rebels hope to use the building as a base to expand the area they control. The rebels already control the Mwaro Corridor, which connects the Gorilla Sector to the rest of Virunga National Park. As park ranger Innocent Mburanumwe posted on the official website of Virunga National Park, "I cannot remember such a desperate situation in a very long time."

I've written about mountain gorillas several times over the past few years. Unfortunately, the situation in the DRC worsens every month, and the heroes protecting the last few hundred mountain gorillas continue to have to risk their lives in order to do their jobs.  

You can keep up with the situation by visiting the rangers' blog, where you can also make a donation to support their work.

The dilemma of the disappearing dingo

Where'd the Australian dingo go? The feared predator (Canis lupus dingo) is quickly disappearing, as it breeds and hybridizes with domesticated dogs. And with the loss of the pure-bred dingo comes the greater chance of environmental destruction by invasive species like foxes and feral cats.

Now the Australian state of Victoria is trying to protect the dingo. Eighty percent of the dingoes there are actually hybrids, and pure dingoes exist in only two remote, mountainous areas. The Victoria Department of Sustainability and Environment has declared the dingo a threatened species and will come up with an action plan to save them. According to a report in The Herald Sun, this could include "strategies to control wild dog populations."

Of course, all of this needs to be balanced against the needs of farmers, who see the dingo as a pest and a threat to livestock. But wild cats, foxes and dogs are an even worse threat to native Australian species, so the dingo remains an essential piece of the country's ecosystem.

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