Aug 24, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Dugongs, known as "sea cows," declared functionally extinct in China

Pig the Dugong celebrates his 21st birthday with cake and lettuce during birthday celebrations at SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium on November 27, 2019
Pig the Dugong celebrates his 21st birthday at SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium on November 27, 2019. Photo: Don Arnold/WireImage

The dugong, a gentle sea animal that lived in China's southern waters for hundreds of years, is now functionally extinct in China, per research by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Driving the news: There have been no records of evidence of dugongs presence in China since 2008, making it likely "that this is the first functional extinction of a large mammal in China’s coastal waters," per ZSL.

  • Researchers said that human activities, including fishing, ship strikes and human-caused habitat loss, threatened the dugong population, which has decreased rapidly from the 1970s onwards.

The big picture: The dugong, also known as the 'sea cow,' has been classified as a Grade 1 National Key Protected Animal since 1988 by the Chinese State Council, placing them under the highest protection offered in the country.

  • "Although seagrass restoration and recovery efforts are a key conservation priority in China, restoration takes time that dugongs may no longer have," the report said.
  • Dugongs may be the inspiration for ancient seafaring tales of mermaids and sirens, Reuters reports.

What they're saying: "Sadly, our new study shows strong evidence of the regional loss of another charismatic aquatic mammal species in China – sadly, once again driven by unsustainable human activity," Samuel Turvey at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology and co-author of the study said.

  • "The likely disappearance of the dugong in China is a devastating loss," Turvey added.
  • "Their absence will not only have a knock-on effect on ecosystem function, but also serves as a wake-up call – a sobering reminder that extinctions can occur before effective conservation actions are developed.”

Between the lines: Researchers surveyed 66 fishing communities across four Chinese provinces along the coastal region of the South China Sea (Hainan, Guangxi, Guangdong, Fujian) to gather local knowledge about dugong sightings.

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