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‘Charismatic’ dugong sea mammal declared functionally extinct in China

Dugongs swim together in the area of Thailand's Chao Mai Beach in this image taken from a video provided by Thailand's Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation on April 22, 2020. (AP)

A giant, gentle sea creature that belongs to the manatee family is now “functionally extinct” in China with no sightings recorded since 2008, a new study said Wednesday.

The dugong, a strictly marine herbivorous mammal, is known to slowly roam the coasts of tropical and subtropical countries, feeding on sea-grass beds in shallow waters. They can grow up to 10 feet long and weigh more than 1,000 pounds.

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 dwindled significantly since 1970 — due in large part to human activity.

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The scientists’ research was published Wednesday in Britain’s Royal Society of Open Science. In a press release announcing the findings, the report’s authors said there are “strong indications that this is the first functional extinction of a large mammal in China’s coastal waters,” where they have been spotted for hundreds of years.

“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,” said Samuel Turvey, a professor and researcher at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.

The authors recommended that the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which keeps a global conservation “Red List,” reassess the dugong species’ regional status as critically endangered (possibly extinct) across the entirety of Chinese waters.

Fishing, ship strikes and human-caused habitat loss were the main drivers of extinction, the authors said. Sea grass is a specific marine habitat that is being “rapidly degraded by human impacts,” according to the release.

China has made sea-grass restoration and recovery efforts “a key conservation priority,” but the researchers say the efforts may be too little too late.

“Dugongs stay in waters up to 10 meters and are constantly grazing,” 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 contains a high level of carbon and is 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 affords it the highest level of protection.