San Diego, California - An international team of experts has gathered in San Felipe, Mexico at the request of the Mexican government’s ministry of the environment and natural resources (SEMARNAT) and has begun a bold, compassionate plan - known as VaquitaCPR - to save the endangered vaquita porpoise from extinction. The vaquita porpoise, sometimes called the “panda of the sea,” is the most endangered marine mammal in the world. Latest estimates by scientists who have been monitoring the vaquita for decades show there are fewer than 30 vaquitas left in the wild. The vaquita only lives in the upper Gulf of California.

"San Diego Zoo Global applauds this leadership effort to save the vaquita from extinction by bringing it into the protection of human care," said Bob Wiese, Ph.D., Chief Life Sciences Officer, San Diego Zoo Global. "San Diego Zoo Global's own experiences saving critically endangered species like the California condor and the Arabian oryx have demonstrated the importance of providing protection for species under imminent threat of extinction while working to develop a way to create sustainable populations for the future."

The project, which has been recommended by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), involves locating, rescuing and temporarily relocating vaquitas to an ocean sanctuary on the coast of San Felipe. The explicit goal of VaquitaCPR is to return the vaquitas to their natural habitat once the primary threat to their survival has been eliminated.

"Rescuing these animals and placing them in a temporary sanctuary is necessary to protect them until their natural habitat can be made safe," said Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, lead vaquita expert and chair of CIRVA. "We realize that capturing even a few vaquitas will be very difficult—but if we don't try, the vaquita will disappear from the planet forever."

VaquitaCPR field operations, including efforts to locate and bring vaquitas into temporary sea pens, began Oct. 12 and are expected to continue for several weeks.

VaquitaCPR is an international conservation program led by SEMARNAT in coordination with the National Marine Mammal Foundation, The Marine Mammal Center and the Chicago Zoological Society. Key collaborators in Mexico include Instituto Nacional de Ecología y Cambia Climático (INECC), Asociación Mexicana de Hábitats para la Interacción y Protección de Mamíferos Marinos (AMHMAR), Museo de la Ballena and Baja Aqua Farms. United States collaborators include Duke University and the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration contributing technical support. World Wildlife Fund is contributing, with acoustic monitoring and the retrieval of lost or abandoned "ghost" nets from vaquita habitat. European collaborators include Dolfinarium Harderwijk, Aarhus University and Fjord & Baelt. Additional support and expertise has been offered from Dolphin Quest, SeaWorld and the Vancouver Aquarium. VaquitaCPR operates as a private and public partnership, relying on both individual donors and government grants. VaquitaCPR has received generous financial support from the Mexican government, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Global Wildlife Conservation, Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, Africam, International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association, Waitt Foundation, Disney Conservation Fund, YAQU PACHA and Firedoll Foundation.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes on-site wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.