VaquitaBy Leah Romero, age 9

The vaquita, one of Mexico’s national animals, once roamed the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, by the thousands. But now they’re endangered and close to extinction.

The Mexican vaquita (a.k.a. the panda of the sea, due to its black spots around its eyes) is a small toothed whale. Its diet includes fish, squid and crustaceans. In Spanish, its name means “little cow.”

It’s the smallest known cetacean (whale, dolphin or porpoise). Full-grown females can weigh 75 pounds (34 kilograms) and can grow to five feet long (1.5 meters). Thousands once swam free, before poachers started targeting them.   

The population has fallen to only 30 individuals, according to the World Wildlife Fund’s official count that places them in critically endangered” territory. But a more recent analysis from the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) places the population at around just 10.

The vaquita can be accidentally caught when poachers use gillnets to hunt for another endangered fish, the totoaba. The swim bladder of the totoaba is worth $20,000 and can be illegally traded for traditional medicine on China’s black market. They can also be sold as expensive gifts or investments.

In 2018, as a result of a lawsuit filed by conservation groups, the U.S. Court of International Trade ordered the Trump administration to ban seafood imports from Mexico caught with gillnets because they kill the vaquita.

As Mexico’s vaquita porpoise swims closer to extinction, Mexico is trying to save it. Advocates are calling on Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to do more to protect them before it’s too late.

“This is doable even now,” Brooke Bessesen, a conservationist and author of a new book, Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez, told the New York Times. “We have to come up with solutions that buy time. This is not a numbers game. It’s a game of time.”

Glossary terms:

Endangered: Seriously at risk of extinction.

Extinction: The process of a species dying out.

Poachers: People that hunt animals illegally.

Black Market: An illegal traffic or trade in officially controlled or scarce commodities.

Bladder: A part of the stomach.