Blog: Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare

Chicago Conservation Leaders Join Urgent Rescue Mission

Shedd Aquarium, Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo and Lincoln Park Zoo are responding to the emergency rescue needs of the vaquita porpoise – the smallest and most endangered marine mammal – through their support of an ambitious action plan aimed at saving what scientists believe to be the only 30 remaining of the species in the world.  Chicago’s three species conservation leaders are among 100 accredited members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) that have contributed to a collective pledge of $1 million to support the VaquitaCPR emergency plan in addition to a pledge of up to $3 million by the Mexican government, announced today.
“Zoos and aquariums have a proud history of working to save species from extinction, including black-footed ferrets, the California condor, the Florida manatee and the blue iguana,” said Dan Ashe, President and CEO of AZA. “This $1 million commitment by our members is the largest contribution other than the Mexican government. It's a bold and heroic statement that we will do everything we can to prevent the extinction of the vaquita. The next step is to join the Mexican government and the VaquitaCPR consortium to support the implementation of the rescue plan.”
Financial support between Chicago’s three institutions totals nearly $100,000 towards the overall $1 million pledge, in addition to intellectual and field work contributions to the plan.
The decline of the vaquita porpoise is due to entanglement in gill nets set during illegal fishing for an endangered sea bass, the totoaba, to obtain its swim bladder for markets in China. In addition to devastating endangered vaquita and totoaba populations, the illegal fishing nets have also killed innumerable dolphins, sharks, turtles, and other marine creatures essential to a healthy Gulf of Mexico ecosystem and the web of life it nourishes. 
"The situation is urgent, and I'm proud that our members have responded, so significantly", said Ashe. "But while this is extraordinary, it is not unusual. AZA-accredited aquariums and zoo are dedicated conservation organizations."
Nearly two dozen species would not be on Earth today were it not for zoos and aquariums accepting the challenge and working with partners to prevent extinction. It is also the reason AZA and its members established SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction, a program to coordinate resources and expertise on saving 10 endangered species, including the vaquita.
“The world is in the middle of what experts believe is a sixth mass extinction," said Dr. Bridget Coughlin, President and CEO of Shedd Aquarium. "Animals enrich our planet and our lives, and we believe humanity has a strong moral obligation to love, understand and protect them. The unique animal care and science expertise zoos and aquariums bring, along with our ability to enhance the public's connection to and appreciation for the aquatic world, has never been more critically needed than it is today – and especially for the vaquita.”
Like other species restored by AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, the ambitious, VaquitaCPR (Conservation, Protection and Recovery) emergency action plan calls for the capture and relocation of the remaining vaquitas to a temporary sanctuary while crucial efforts aimed at eliminating illegal fishing and removing gillnets from their environment continue.
Experienced animal care staff will monitor the vaquitas daily and any animal exhibiting signs of excessive stress will be released. Once all gillnets are located and removed, the animals will be released with satellite linked transmitters. Post-release monitoring will include daily, remote satellite tracking of the animals and their behavior in their newly safe environment.
The emergency action plan has been adopted by Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT) on the recommendation of their expert advisory group, the Comité Internacional Para La Recuperación De La Vaquita (CIRVA). Under SEMARNAT leadership, the National Marine Mammal Foundation, The Marine Mammal Center, and the Chicago Zoological Society will help coordinate the efforts of a multi-institutional, international conservation team. 
"We're proud to be part of this extraordinary, international effort in both the field and thorough funding to save the vaquita.  We also want to thank all the partners for their collaborative action for such an important cause,” said Dr. Stuart Strahl, President and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society, which manages Brookfield Zoo.
Dr. Randy Wells, a senior conservation scientist for the Chicago Zoological Society with more than 46 years of international marine mammal conservation research experience will serve as the Vaquita Rescue Project Coordinator in collaboration with VaquitaCPR and other collaborators.
The rare and tiny 100-pound, 5-foot long, toothed whale only lives in the northern pocket of the Gulf of California, Mexico. Similar to, but smaller than, a dolphin the species was first discovered in 1958.
"AZA institutions share a deep commitment to and expertise in conserving the world's wildlife," said Lincoln Park Zoo President and CEO Kevin Bell. "Through SAFE, we're able to come together as a force and harness that commitment and expertise to save some of the most endangered animal species on the planet." Bell is also a founder of AZA’s SAFE initiative.
To donate to the emergency VaquitaCPR project, visit
Posted: 4/5/2017 1:05:54 PM by Steve Pine

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