The docile dugong is now functionally extinct in China because of hunting and habitat degradation.
Dramatic population decline in recent decades
A recent study found that while dugongs have been documented in Chinese waters for several hundred years, a rapid population collapse occurred since the 1970s.
788 professional fishermen across four Chinese provinces were surveyed about dugong sightings.
The study found that only five per cent of the respondents, who averaged 25 years of fishing experience, said they have seen dugongs before.
For the most part, dugongs were last seen by the respondents 23 years ago.
Only three individuals sighted dugongs in the last five years.
Additionally, there have also been no records of dugongs in China after 2008, and no verified field observations since 2000.
The dugong has been classified by the Chinese state council as a grade one national key protected animal since 1988, reported The Guardian.
"Minimal hope" of survival
Being functionally extinct means that the gentle marine creature is no longer able to maintain a viable population as there are too few individuals reproducing, which might lead to inbreeding.
One key reason for the drop in their population in China is the degradation of seagrass beds, which makes up most of the herbivore's diet.
Other causes include hunting and accidental entanglement, as their habitats overlap greatly with human marine activities like fishing.
While the researchers acknowledge that a remnant dugong population could possibly survive in the northern South China Sea, the continuing deterioration of coastal ecosystems in the region mean that "dugongs have minimal hope of even short-term survival if they have not already disappeared".
This is the first functional extinction of a large vertebrate in Chinese coastal waters. The dugong also happens to be the only strictly herbivorous marine mammal in the world.
The authors said that they "welcome any possible future evidence that dugongs might survive in China", but that the study provided important evidence of the species' decline.
"This rapid documented population collapse also serves as a sobering reminder that extinctions can occur before effective conservation actions are developed," said the study.
Critically endangered in Singapore
Dugongs can also be found in Singapore, though they are rarely spotted in the wild.
The animal is critically endangered here.
Their feeding trails in our seagrass meadows are often spotted in areas like Chek Jawa and Pulau Semakau.
Seagrasses are crucial to the conservation of dugongs as their breeding behaviour is highly dependent on the availability of food.
Locally, seagrass habitats are threatened by water pollution, marine litter, fishing nets and coastal development.
Top image via Wikimedia Commons.