Dugongs now threatened with extinction

MONTREAL (AFP-Jiji) — Dugongs — large herbivorous marine mammals commonly known as “sea cows” — are now threatened with extinction, according to an official list updated Friday.

These gentle cousins of the manatee graze on seagrass in shallow coastal waters, and are an important source of ecotourism in their tropical habitats.

Despite their moniker, they are more closely related to elephants than to cows.

Dugong populations in East Africa and New Caledonia have now entered the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as “critically endangered” and “endangered,” respectively.

Globally, the species remains classified as “vulnerable.”

Their primary threats are unintentional capture in fishing gear in East Africa and poaching in New Caledonia, as well as boat injuries in both locations.

In East Africa, fossil fuel exploration and production, pollution and unauthorized development are also degrading their seagrass food source. In New Caledonia, seagrass is being damaged by agricultural run-off and pollution from nickel mining, among other sources.

Habitat degradation is compounded by climate change throughout the dugongs’ range in the Indian and western Pacific Oceans.

The updated list comes as delegates from across the world meet in Montreal for a U.N. biodiversity conference to finalize a new framework for “a peace pact with nature,” with key goals of preserving Earth’s forests, oceans and species.

IUCN deputy director Stewart Maginnis told AFP: “The ability to slow and limit extinction rate, to buy us more time, has been focused very much on a large terrestrial species.”

“But the fact is that we are 30 years behind on effective marine conservation — now hopefully we can catch that up.”

Climate change is driving ocean acidification as well as deoxygenation, while flows of agricultural and industrial pollution from the land are causing significant impacts on ocean species, effects that cascade throughout food webs.

Maginnis stressed that the Red List is not a hopeless catalog of doom — it serves as a scientifically rigorous tool that helps focus conservation action.

It includes more than 150,000 species, with over 42,000 threatened with extinction.