The dugong, the charismatic marine mammal that has inspired mermaid fairy tales, has been declared functionally extinct in China, joining a lengthy list of wildlife that have either disappeared or been threatened by increasing human activities and climate change.
The herbivorous mammal is functionally extinct in the South China Sea, where they have been documented for hundreds of years, researchers from the Zoological Society of London and the Chinese Academy of Sciences said in a study published Wednesday. This means that although the species may still exist in the region, their dwindled numbers are no longer able to maintain a viable population and play a significant role in the ecosystem.
“The near-shore habitats inhabited by dugongs overlap highly with the activity area of fishers and other marine resource users, making them vulnerable to human pressures,” authors of the study said. “Its recent status in Chinese waters is poorly understood.”
No records of dugong have been recorded since 2008 after a “serious population decline” in China during the 20th century, according to the study. Researchers said it’s “the first reported functional extinction of a large vertebrate in Chinese marine waters,” highlighting the deterioration of marine ecosystems in Chinese waters, home to around one-third of the world’s marine mammal species.
The dugong, which mainly feeds on seagrass, was once a common sight in the coastal city of Beihai in the Guangxi Autonomous Region, where they are referred as “sea cows,” local residents told domestic media. One fisherman said that the dugongs were considered as sacred creatures until they were slaughtered en masse when the Great Leap Forward campaign started in 1958.
The sea mammals have been classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and protected as a Grade 1 National Key Protected Animal since 1988 by China’s State Council. They are found in the coasts of 37 tropical and subtropical countries and are more vulnerable to near-shore human activities.
Wednesday’s study on the dugong comes just two months after the IUCN declared the Chinese paddlefish extinct. The species that outlived the dinosaurs mostly lived in the Yangtze River Basin for 200 million years and was last seen in 2003.
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: The dudong has been declared functionally extinct in China. Photo by Patrick Louisy from @科学未来人 on Weibo)