But according to conservationists at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the number of dugongs in waters near mainland China has declined significantly since 1970 — in large part due to human activity.
the scientists’ research results published Wednesday in Britain’s Royal Society of Open Science. In a press release announcing the findings, the report’s authors said there was “strong evidence that this is the first functional extinction event of a large mammal in China’s coastal waters,” where they have been sighted in hundreds of years.
“Our new study shows strong evidence for the regional loss of another charismatic aquatic mammal species in China – unfortunately, once again, driven by unsustainable human activities,” said Samuel Turvey, professor and researcher at the ZSL Institute of Zoology.
The authors recommended the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which holds a global conservation “Red List,” Reassessment of the regional status of the dugong species as critically endangered (possibly extinct) in all Chinese waters.
Fisheries, ship strikes and human-caused habitat loss are the main causes of the extinction, the authors said. Seagrass is a specific marine habitat that is “rapidly degraded by human impact,” according to the press release.
China has made seagrass recovery and restoration efforts a “major conservation priority,” but researchers say efforts may be too little and too late.
“Dugongs stay in water depths of up to 10 meters and graze constantly,” said Heidi Ma, a postdoctoral researcher at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology and co-author of the report. “But there is strong competition for resources in these areas,” she said, adding that seagrass is high in carbon and is an essential food source 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.