As if humans weren’t doing enough damage to natural habitats around the world, the dugong — a marine mammal closely related to the manatee — has been declared functionally extinct in the waters off China, largely due to humanity’s destructive ways.
In a dismal study published Thursday in the journal the Royal Society Open Science, an international team of researchers found that the species — which was once abundant in the South China Sea — has not been seen in the waters for the past 20 years. In fact, there have been “no confirmed records” of the animal since 2008, according to the paper.
The researchers conclude that the species is now extinct in the South China Sea, leaving the population large enough to play a significant role in the marine ecosystem. So there power be there any dugongs in the area that haven’t been seen yet. But the species cannot survive in the region in the short or long term.
When it comes to how the dugong has disappeared from the South China Sea, you can blame the usual suspect: people. The study states that a combination of human-caused factors, including overfishing and climate change-induced habitat loss, are the main drivers of the dugong’s demise.
“Deliberate hunting coupled with the degradation of seagrass beds and accidental entanglement together likely contributed to the rapid collapse of the Chinese dugong population,” the authors wrote. They add that the disappearance of the dugong “reflects the latest stage in the progressive ecological decline of marine ecosystems in China’s waters, which are home to about a third of the world’s marine mammal species.”
To reach their conclusions, the study authors conducted a large-scale interview survey of 788 people who regularly use and interact with the South China Sea. Only 5 percent of the 788 respondents said they had seen a dugong in the water before. Of those witnesses, only three had seen in the past five years.
An important — and incredibly stark — conclusion of the study is that species extinctions can often occur long before humans even notice and therefore intervene in an effort to save them. It is the unfortunate result of a runaway climate and habitat destruction due to industrial habits such as overfishing.
The dugong, also known as the manatee, is the only surviving species of the family Dugongidae. Its closest living relative is the manatee, which inhabits waterways in West Africa and America. The creature is thought to have been the inspiration for folktales about mermaids in the Pacific. So yeah, people are pretty much killing mermaids with climate change.
While the dugongs also live in the waters of Vietnam and Taiwan, their loss to the oceans off China undoubtedly paints a very bleak picture of the future of the keystone species — as well as the future of other marine mammals. “The message is alarming,” the authors wrote, “a reminder that effective population and habitat management is critical in dugong habitats elsewhere.”