Scientists say the marine mammals of dugongs are functionally extinct in China


A cute, giant marine creature belonging to the manatee family is now “functionally extinct” in China, and no sightings of it have been recorded since 2008, a new study said Wednesday.

It is known that the dugong, a herbivorous marine mammal, slowly roams the coasts of tropical and subtropical countries, Feeding on seaweed in shallow water. They can reach 10 feet in length and weigh over 1,000 pounds.

But according to conservationists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the number of dugongs in waters near mainland China has dwindled dramatically since 1970—largely due to human activity.

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Scientists’ Search has been published Wednesday at the British Royal Society of Open Science. In a press release announcing the findings, the report’s authors said there were “strong indications that this was the first functional extinction of a large mammal in the coastal waters of China,” where it has been monitored for hundreds of years.

“Our new study shows strong evidence of the territorial loss of other charismatic aquatic mammal species in China – unfortunately, again driven by unsustainable human activity,” said Samuel Turvey, professor and researcher at the ZSL Institute of Zoology.

The authors recommended that the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which maintains global protection “red list,” Reassessment of the territorial status of the dugong species as critically endangered (possibly extinct) across entire Chinese waters.

The study’s authors said fishing, ship strikes, and human-caused habitat loss were the main causes of the extinction. Kelp is a specific marine habitat that is “rapidly degrading due to human impacts,” according to the release.

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China has made its seaweed restoration and recovery efforts a “key conservation priority,” but researchers say efforts may be too little too late.

“The dugongs stay in water up to 10 meters deep and graze constantly,” said Heidi Ma, a postdoctoral researcher at the ZSL Institute of Zoology and co-author of the report. “But there is a lot of competition for resources in these areas,” she said, adding that seagrass contains a high level of carbon and is an essential source of food and shelter for fish.

Since 1988, China has classified the dugong as a “national first-class protected animal”, a classification that technically gives it the highest level of protection.

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