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Of thylacines and vaquitas…..

Last night as I was surfing through the gamut of channels available on television I came across Animal Planet and I don’t know what made me stop switching channels. The feature was on the Thylacine also called the Tasmanian Tiger and the efforts of Sydney’s Australian Natural History Museum to clone the extinct animal through DNA recovered from a foetus of the animal preserved more than a century ago. While this may remind some of us of the uncanny resemblance of the situation to the blockbuster novel and movie by the same name, “Jurassic Park”, the director of the museum, Michael Archer disagrees saying that unlike dinosaurs, the natural ecological system in which the animal existed is still present. Michael Archer believes that this will be an important step to directly reverse one of the biggest mistakes made by human beings – that of hunting and killing the Thylacine to the point of extinction. Die-hard critics, on the other hand, say this is “playing God”. However another one of their arguments cannot be ignored – people will cease to care about the need for conservation. As this group of researchers struggles against difficulties ranging from sequencing the dead DNA to finding a suitable host to bear the clone, the future of this project is still uncertain.

However, while the thylacine is extinct, there are a number of wildlife species that, though not extinct, are on the brink of being so. While animals like the tiger and rhino are still able to survive thorugh effective conservation, albeit in small numbers, thanks to their famous endangered status there are many more that are lesser known and have today reached the brink of extinction. One such animal is the Vaquita.

The vaquita is the rarest porpoise and also the smallest. An adult will max out at about 5 feet. The vaquita is found in the northern part of the Gulf of California also called the Sea of Cortez. Today only 200 of these timid creatures are alive and the numbers are fast depleting. The reason – human beings. While, unlike the extinct Thylacine or the endangered tiger, the vaquita is not actively hunted by human beings its death is being caused due to ignorance and neglect. Fishermen off the coast use gill nets – nearly invisible fishing nets set in the water like curtains and very often left unattended – to trap fish. The vaquita gets trapped in these . Since the vaquita is not a fish but a mammal, it must resurface or “breach” from time to time to breathe. Hence when it gets trapped in these gill nets it very soon drowns. Eerily its distant relative, the baiji, a porpoise native to the Yangtse River in China, met the same gruesome fate and is extinct today, handing over its unenviable tag of “Most endangered cetacean” to the vaquita.

While the Mexico government is taking efforts to conserve the animal, lack of motivation and funds is still a major hurdle. Add to that the Vaquita’s intrinsic timidness and claustrophobic living habits (today it exists in a stretch barely 40 miles wide) and the problem is not a small one. On the other hand, dangerous and illegal fishing practices are still continuing. On an average about 70-80 vaquitas are killed annually through getting trapped in gill nets. At this rate, the vaquita looks to be following the Thylacine and its cousin, the baiji to extinction.

The issue is such that requires not only awareness but active participation on the part of all of us to conserve this species. Because not only do we stand to lose another wonderful species but also run the additional risk, through our ignorance and lack of concern, of sending numerous other species to the list of extinct animals before long. Everyone says “let us not create a world where our kids will be able to see tigers only in picture books”….. please remember….. vaquitas have rarely been even photographed… Most photographic records are only of dead animals entrapped hopelessly in gill nets…

Categories: Random Stuff
  1. Anupama Kondayya
    22 May 2008 at 18:28 IST

    I second you on everything you have said in this post. There is just one problem…in a world where it is becoming increasingly impossible to convince humans to being compassionate to fellow human beings, do you believe that we can convince the masses that 200 fish in some ocean matter and need our attention? I don’t mean to be negative but I am feeling quite hopeless these days about the status of most animal species and I have no idea how to remedy the apathy that the masses have in this regard.Nevertheless, excellent post on an issue that needs its share of publicity…

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