But according to conservationists at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the number of dugongs in the waters off mainland China has declined significantly since 1970 — largely due to human activity.
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The scientists’ research was published Wednesday in the British Royal Society of Open Science. In a press release announcing the findings, the report’s authors said there is “strong evidence that this is the first functional extinction of a large mammal in China’s coastal waters,” where they have been seen for hundreds of years.
“Our new study shows strong evidence of the regional loss of another charismatic aquatic mammal species in China — unfortunately again driven by unsustainable human activity,” said Samuel Turvey, a professor and researcher at the ZSL Institute of Zoology.
The authors recommended that the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which maintains a global “Red List,” reassess the regional status of the dugong species as critically endangered (possibly extinct) throughout China’s waters.
Fishing, ship attacks and human-caused habitat loss were the leading causes of extinction, the authors said. Seagrass is a specific marine habitat that is “rapidly being degraded by human influences,” according to the release.
China has made seagrass restoration and restoration efforts “a major conservation priority,” but the researchers say the efforts may be too little, too late.
“Target boys stay in waters up to 10 meters high and graze constantly,” said Heidi Ma, a 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 seagrass is high in carbon and 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.