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 declined dramatically since 1970, largely due to human activity.
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The scientists’ research was published in Britain’s Royal Society of Open Science on Wednesday. In a press release announcing the findings, the report’s authors said there were “strong indications that this is the first functional extinction of a large mammal in Chinese coastal waters”, where they said been spotted for hundreds of years.
“Our new study shows strong evidence for the regional loss of another charismatic aquatic mammal species in China – sadly, once 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 a global conservation “red list”, reassess the regional status of the dugong species as Critically Endangered (possibly extinct ) in all Chinese waters.
Fishing, ship strikes and human-caused habitat loss were the main drivers of the extinction, the authors said. Seagrass is a specific marine habitat that is “rapidly degraded by human impacts,” the statement said.
China has made seagrass restoration and recovery efforts “a key conservation priority,” but researchers say efforts could be too little too late.
“Dugongs stay in waters down to 10 meters and graze constantly,” said Heidi Ma, postdoctoral researcher at ZSL’s 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 seagrasses contain a high level of carbon and are an essential source of food and shelter for fish.
Since 1988, China has classified the dugong as a “Grade 1 National Key Protected Animal,” a designation that technically gives it the highest level of protection.