Last year, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums rolled out a new conservation initiative - Saving Animals From Extinction, which, aptly enough, spells SAFE. SAFE was meant to be an integration of zoo and aquarium work combined with field-based conservation. Ten species (or groups of species) were selected to be the trail candidates. These included such iconic zoo and aquarium species as the Asian elephant, the black rhinoceros, and the cheetah, as well as lesser-known animals, like the western pond turtle.
There was also the vaquita, which was strange to me, seeing as there are no vaquita in captivity; AZA's commitment has largely been limited to fundraising, awareness, and supporting scientists' research.
It's entirely possible that this may change.
A dead vaquita in San Felipe photographed in 1992. The vaquita’s facial markings have led it to be labeled the ‘panda of the sea.’ Photograph: Omar Vidal/Reuters
TL;DR Version: The status of the vaquita - an adorable little porpoise found only off the coast of Mexico - has become so precarious that scientists are now forced to consider the possibility of capturing them (there are about 60 left in the world) to form an emergency captive-breeding program, either at aquariums or in sea pens.
The challenges are very real. No one has ever maintained this species in captivity, and when you keep an animal for the first time ever, there is bound to be some trial and error with diet, veterinary care, and other husbandry parameters. Critics of the suggestions (because to be honest, it's not a plan now... barely a concept, even) say that it's too risky. I can understand where they are coming from...
however... this wouldn't be so risky if maybe we had all agreed to try the captive breeding approach before we got down to 60 animals. That's what drives me crazy about these last-ditch captive-breeding programs... people wait until the last minute, putting it off for as long as possible, wait until the animal is three-feet (for a quadraped, anyway) in the grave, and then finally consent to it. Considering the odds zoos and aquariums and other breeding facilities face in those cases, it's a miracle that anything ever gets saved. On the terrestrial side, I suspect we'll be in the same boat with the saola in another few years.
The time to start saving an endangered species is before it almost goes extinct. Hell, the best time to start is before it even becomes endangered. When zoos first began working with African penguins (also a SAFE species), they were extremely common. Now they are endangered - but all of the husbandry knowledge that zoos and aquariums have gained over the years means that the captive population is thriving while the wild one has plummeted. Because we have lots of penguins in zoos, reintroduction may be an option some day... if the mess in the wild ever gets sorted out.
So if you're scared of risking vaquitas, which is understandable, here's what you do. Get yourself the most common porpoise species you can as a surrogate for the vaquita and go through the motions with them - rearing, breeding, feeding, treating - and work out the kinks there. That's what happened with the black-footed ferret recovery project - zoos used European polecats as models.
It almost makes you think that some of the Animal Rights' groups would appreciate all of the work that SeaWorld has done over the years learning about how to maintain and breed various cetaceans in captivity... not that anyone will thank them.
Of course, better do it quickly. Because if there are 60 vaquitas now, who knows what the number will be if anyone finally gets up an makes the decision to do a captive-breeding program. It probably won't be more that 60...
Sure, doing something in this case is very risky. But it might not be nearly as risky as doing nothing.