Only three interviewees from coastal communities in China reported seeing the dugong (Dugong dugong) in the last five years.
Known as the gentlest giant of the ocean, the dugong’s slow and laid-back demeanor is likely to have made it vulnerable to overfishing and marine accidents.
It is not completely extinct though, still existing in other parts of the world but facing similar threats.
Professor Samuel Turvey, from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), co-author of the studystated: “The extinction of the dugong in China is a devastating loss.”
The only vegetarian marine mammal, the prey of poachers
Scientists from ZSL and the Chinese Academy of Sciences reviewed all historical data on where dugongs were previously found in China.
They found that there had been no verified sightings by scientists since the year 2000. In addition, the researchers interviewed 788 community members living in those identified coastal regions to determine when locals had last seen these animals.
On average, residents reported not seeing a dugong for 23 years. Only three people had seen one in the last five years.
Dugong ‘no longer viable to support itself’
This has led researchers to declare the dugong functionally extinct, meaning it is “no longer viable to support itself,” according to ZSL researcher Heidi Ma for BBC.
The dugong is a unique character of the sea. Weighing nearly half a ton, it is the only vegetarian marine mammal. Similar in appearance and behavior to the manatee, but distinguished by its whale-like tail, its gentle, seemingly benign disposition has led some to believe that it inspired ancient tales of mermaids.
Unfortunately, its habitat close to China’s shores left it vulnerable to poachers who sought the animal for its skin, bones and meat.
The UN wants a new maritime treaty to protect the oceans
After a notable population decline, the dugong was classified as a protected animal by the Chinese State Council in 1988, but researchers believe that the continued destruction of its habitat, including the seagrass bed it uses as a food source, caused a “rapid population collapse”.
The UN Environment Program estimates that 7% of seagrass habitat is lost globally each year due to industrial and agricultural pollution, coastal development, unregulated fishing and climate change.
A warning for other regions
Prof Turvey said the extinction of this species in China should act as a warning to other regions that host dugongs, including Australia and East Africa, calling it “a stark reminder that extinctions can occur before effective conservation action to be developed”.
The species is found in 37 other tropical regions of the world, particularly in the shallow coastal waters of the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific, but is classified as “vulnerable” and is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List (IUCN) of threatened species.
A new UN maritime treaty has been proposed that would put 30% of the world’s oceans in protected areas. Kristina Gjerde, marine policy advisor for IUCN, told the BBC: “The dugong is a sad example of what is happening to the marine environment, where human activities are having an increasing effect.”