Dugongs are now declared as functionally extinct in China, scientists said in a study published last month.
More commonly known as “sea cows,” dugongs are graceful creatures that graze on sea grasses in shallow coastal waters in the Indian and western Pacific Oceans. These creatures, along with the similar-looking manatees, are also believed to be the origin of the mythical mermaids.
Since dugongs can’t stay underwater for too long, six minutes according to Nat Geo, they breathe by “standing” on their tail with their head above the water’s surface.
The dugong population in China was small to begin with, wrote The Society for Marine Mammalogy, but Chinese authorities have given the gentle giants the highest level of protection that they can give by classifying them as a Class I in their list of “National Key Protected Wild Animals” under their government’s Wildlife Protection Law.
Despite their efforts for conservation, dugong sightings in China have been scarce since the mid 2000s, 2008 being the last recorded year that a dugong was seen in Chinese waters.
Researchers conducted a large-scale survey across four Chinese provinces to determine the Dugong’s regional status in Chinese waters. From 788 individuals, only 5% reported past dugong sightings. The last sightings were from 23 years ago on average, only 3 respondents reported a sighting within the past 5 years. Based on this data, the researchers concluded that dugongs are now functionally extinct in China.
Threats to this magnificent species are loss and degradation of seagrass habitats, their primary food source, and water pollution, which causes their own coastal habitat’s degradation. Dugongs are often victims of net fishing as well. Accidental drownings are also believed to be one of the reasons for the species’ rapid decline.
“Our study provides evidence of a new regional loss of a charismatic marine megafaunal species, and the first reported functional extinction of a large vertebrate in Chinese marine waters. This rapid documented population collapse also serves as a sobering reminder that extinctions can occur before effective conservation actions are developed,” the researchers wrote.
In more recent news, India’s doing their part in protecting the dugong species in their area. There are said to be only 150-200 dugongs in the area. India is now setting up the first Dugong Conservation Reserve in the country.
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