This article was originally published August 26, 2022.
The dugong is a cousin of the manatee. They live in coastal waters and eat sea grass, but unlike their manatee cousins, they don’t travel to freshwater areas and they have a dolphin-like tails. They’ve also just been declared functionally extinct in the waters surrounding China, a new study reports.
According to the study published in the Royal Society Open Science, there has been no sighting of a dugong in Chinese waters since 2008. Researchers surveyed fishing communities — mainly those who fished as their main source of income. Fishers had to be at least 18 years old and worked in the area for the last five years.
This information, combined with historical dugong records, indicates that there has been no scientific field observation of a dugong since 2000. It appears that the dugong no longer inhabits Chinese waters. Though it is possible that a few may still be left in the area.
According to the study, dugong populations peaked in the area in the 1960s. However, boating collisions, habitat loss, fishing bycatch and other human interactions have caused the population to steadily drop since 1975. Even with conservation efforts in place, the populations were still depleted, serving as a sobering reminder of just how quickly extinction can happen, the study authors say.
More on Extinct Species:
Global fish stocks are declining, read more on why and what you can do to help.
Conservationists avoid giving up on animals too soon, find out how we know when a species is extinct.
The dugong was already considered extinct in Taiwan, and according to the study, the authors suggested changing the status of the dugong to critically endangered (possibly extinct). But as of December 9, 2022, the dugong has been added to the IUCN Red List as "threatened with extinction." This gentle sea cow and nearly 44 percent of abalone shellfish species have been elevated to this level.
Though they may no longer inhabit waters around China, the dugong can still be seen in the coastal waters of Australia, Indonesia and East Africa. However, according to the BBC, the dugong population around Mozambique is considered critically endangered, with only about 250 individuals left. Those living off the coast of New Caledonia (east of Australia) are also considered endangered.