Explained: Dugong, the sea cow which inspired mermaid tales, declared extinct in China


Dugong, also known as the sea cow, is now extinct in China.

With the destruction of their natural habitat and historical hunting, no Dugong has been sighted in China since 2008.

As per Reuters, the research published in the journal Royal Society Open Science by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences says “this is the first functional extinction of a large mammal in China’s coastal waters”.

The number of this gentle marine mammal, found in China’s southern waters for hundreds of years, started declining from the 1970s onwards.

Let’s find out more about Dugongs and the reasons behind their extinction in China:

What are Dugongs?

Part of Sirenia family, Dugong, weighs half a tonne, and is the only vegetarian marine mammal.

Like other sea cows, Dugong feeds on seagrasses and hence could mostly be spotted at seagrass beds, a specific marine habitat that is constantly deteriorating due to human activities.

With its whale-like tail, Dugong, which inspired the mermaid myth, frequents the coastal waters of Indian Ocean and western Pacific Ocean.

The marine mammal has been declared vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The marine mammals have a life expectancy of around 70 years and are found in about 37 tropical regions. However, they face a similar threat to their extinction as in China.

How did they go extinct in China?

Since 1988, China’s State Council had listed Dugongs as a grade-one national key protected animal.

The decline of the sea cow can be attributed to fishing, shipping accidents and human-created habitat loss,  research said. The mammal, which resembles a manatee, is targeted by hunters for its bone, skin and meat.

Results of the research

The study conducted by a team of international scientists interviewed 66 fishing communities spanning four Chinese provinces along the coastal area of the South China Sea to gather information on Dugong sightings.

“Through interview surveys, we gathered valuable information that was previously not available for making evidence-based evaluations of the status of Dugongs in the region,” Heidi Ma, Postdoctoral Researcher at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology was quoted as saying by IFLScience.

“This not only demonstrates the usefulness of ecological knowledge for understanding species’ status, but also helps us engage local communities and to investigate possible drivers of wildlife decline and potential solutions for mitigation,” Ma said in a statement.

The researchers after interviewing 788 citizens residing in the coastal areas of China, discovered that on average, no dugongs have been seen in 23 years. Only three people claimed to have spotted the sea cow in the last five years. Moreover, scientists have also not reported any sighting of dugongs since 2000, Economic Times reported.

However, the authors have said they would “welcome any possible future evidence” of the existence of dugongs in China.

‘Wake-up call’

Sounding alarm on the findings of the study, professor Samuel Turvey of ZSL’s Institute of Zoology and co-author of the research, called the report a “wake-up call” to put conservation efforts on priority.

“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,” The Guardian quoted Turvey as saying.

Further, Turvey said the extinction of Dugong can have a “major negative impact on the health of seagrass systems”.

Researchers have also suggested that the status of Dugongs should be upgraded to critically endangered (possibly extinct) in China.

Some other extinct ocean animals

The Steller’s sea cow was a member of the family Sirenia and related to manatees and Dugongs. It was found around the Commander Islands in the Bering Sea and was hunted for its fat and meat till it was declared extinct by 1768.

The sea mink, found near New England coast, was wanted for its fur. Related to the American mink and a member of the Mustela genus, the sea mink was classified as extinct in 1880.

The Caribbean monk seal, likely to be likely extinct by the mid-20th Century, was the first seal to lose its existence due to human actions, the United States government scientists had said in 2018, as per Marine Conservation report.

Japanese sea lions, hunted for their meat and oil, went extinct in the 1970s.

With inputs from agencies

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