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Dugongs Dying Off

Extinction warnings sound for the enigmatic creature that, according to legend, sailors once mistook for mermaids.


Adorable beast

Dugong dugong. That’s the name in Latin. Most people know it as the sea cow.

Fat, slow and awkward, the dugong’s elephantine looks have never prevented it from winning human affections. The undersea mammal was once mistaken by lonely sailors, drunk from hunger or drink, for the "mermaid", according to legend.

Yet affection has not saved the dugong from the fate of other rare animals, amid the growth of human populations and the onset of modern life. The victim of not only hunters but of careless motor-boaters, the beast is suddenly much rarer in its natural habitat than it once was.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) now warns that "urgent action" is needed to save it from habitat destruction and risk of extinction.

Found along the eastern coast of Africa, where the UNEP mentions high "likelihood" of extinction, and in coastal regions stretching from there to Australia – where they once swam in herds of hundreds – the dugong has especially suffered from net fishing, the UNEP reports.

"Removal of mangrove swamps for firewood and building materials" has denied the animal its preferred hang-out.

Even war has taken a toll, as dugongs in the Persian Gulf region died in the oil that covered the region after the Gulf War and formed slicks on bodies of water there. The Arabian Gulf is still believed to be home to the second largest dugong population in the world, after Australia.

There, and in the Red Sea region, the UNEP report says hopes are high for regeneration, because of low human population density.

But even if the dugongs do get busy reproducing, it will take them a while. They do most everything slowly. Females give birth to just one calf, on average, sometime between the age of six and 17 years old.