Scientists at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Chinese Academy of Science have declared the dugong “functionally extinct” in China. This means that while there may be a few of the animals still living, the population will never recover. “The likely disappearance of the dugong in China is a devastating loss,” said Prof. Samuel Turvey, from ZSL, who co-authored the study.
The researchers reviewed historical data on where dugongs had previously been seen in the country, confirming that the last verified sighting by scientists was in 2000. They also looked at data from almost 800 interviews with community members living in the identified coastal regions, and found that only three people had seen a dugong in the past five years. Overall, residents reported not having seen a dugong, on average, for 23 years.
The Chinese population of dugongs was hunted for its skin, bones and meat in the 20th century, and only received protection by the Chinese State Council in 1988. However, ongoing destruction of the coastal seagrass habitat on which the animal depends resulted in the continued decline of the population.
The rapid loss of seagrass beds is a global problem that is threatening dugongs all over the world, including Australia and the Persian Gulf, where the largest populations live. The plant-eating marine mammal, which is classified as “Vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, also faces threats such as illegal poaching, industrial and agricultural pollution, net entanglement, and climate change.
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