The vaquita has been on the verge of extinction since its discovery in 1958 — and in 2017, the porpoise teeters perilously close to total, permanent obliteration. Scientists estimate fewer than 40 of the mammals still reside in their natural habitat, in Mexico's Gulf of California.
The aquatic mammals' existence is threatened by the widespread use of gill nets in illegal fishing operations in marine protected areas within the Gulf — while they are shy creatures, and usually flee quickly if a boat approaches them, they frequently and easily get caught in the nets, a death sentence without the possibility of commutation. The nets are designed to trap the heads of fish, but easily trap the appendages of the large vaquita.
The drastic population loss is attributable to their sharing of habitat with the totoaba fish, a species whose bladder is highly prized in Asian medicine and traded illegally through Mexico, the US and China.
Speaking to local media, Pacchiano said the government had been collaborating with the US Navy for a year, training a group of dolphins already taught to search for missing scuba divers, to locate vaquitas. The effort, he added, was the optimal way of capturing the largest possible number of vaquitas, and rehoming them elsewhere.
However, the dolphin project, scheduled to commence in September, is but one fragment of the Mexican government's efforts to save the embattled sea creature.
An agreement, signed by the government, Leonardo DiCaprio and Carlos Slim Foundations, formally supported by WWF, has permanently banned the use of gill nets in the vaquita's habitat, and supports the development of new fishing gear and techniques to allow local communities to resume legal, sustainable fishing activities. A temporary ban, in place since 2015, was seen as ineffective by campaigners.
Hollywood behemoth DiCaprio, who has long-campaigned to save the vaquitas, tweeted that the development was "great news."
While a noble objective, many may be skeptical of the efficacy of the military training of animals. While highly domesticated creatures such as dogs have long proven their ability to complete complex tasks, and support human efforts in a number of fields, many other attempts to deploy beasts in specialized situations.
A notorious example is the US Central Intelligence Agency's "Acoustic Kitty" program, launched in the 1960s. It sought to train cats to spy on the Soviet Union, and Soviet embassies in Western countries. Veterinary surgeons implanted a microphone in a subject cat's ear canal, a small radio transmitter at the base of its skull and a thin wire into its fur, theoretically allowing the cat to innocuously record and transmit sound from its surroundings.
Subsequent tests also failed, due to problems with distraction, and cats' acute and frequent hunger. The project was canceled in 1967 — Victor Marchetti, a former CIA officer, said the project cost at least US$20 million in historic terms.
Another major failure occurred in 1942, as America was entering World War II. Then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt was keen on the idea of strapping bombs to bats and airdropping them onto Axis strongholds. The military duly procured thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats, and Louis Fieser, inventor of napalm, designed one-ounce detonation packs to attach to them.
Plans stated a carrier with 26 stacked trays, each containing 40 bats, would be parachuted into the industrial areas of Osaka, Japan. The bats would then fly off and roost on buildings, before timers detonated their bombs. However, during an initial test run, the creatures prematurely sprung loose, roosted under a fuel tank, and incinerated the facility.