Chinese Dugong Declared “Functionally Extinct;” Their Florida Relatives Are Under Threat Too

Dugongs, a placid “gentle giant” marine mammal have been declared “functionally extinct” in China. Meanwhile, their freshwater cousins, Florida manatees, have been under siege as a record number have died in recent years.

According to the New York Post it has been more than a decade since dugongs have been spotted in the wild off Chinese shores. “Functionally extinct” means that even if a few survive it is not a large enough number to breed successfully.

a dugong underwater
Pexels identified this tubby buddy as a dugong, but they are hard to tell apart. Large and slow moving they both depend on seagrass for food. They are related to elephants. About 50 million years ago the dugongs and manatees went back to the water. iPhoto by Chris F on

In other parts of their range they appear to be doing better. They live off the coasts of Australia, India and Thailand and are protected in those regions. The animals eat only sea grass and are slow to reproduce although they can live up to 70 years. Australia has enacted protected zones to avoid conflict with boats and fishing nets. Dugongs often drown after being trapped in a net. They can be killed in boat collisions.

Dugongs were hunted for their flesh and oil for centuries. Some people believe that the dugong gave rise to the belief in mermaids. That theory suggests that fisherman would see a glimpse of a dugong from a distance and image it as a mermaid.

Sea grass is grass that grows underwater and is the principal food of manatees and dugongs

Dugongs and manatees are very similar, They differ mostly in where they live. Dugongs live entirely in saltwater and manatees rarely leave freshwater.

Manatees in Florida are facing very similar threats to dugongs. Both depend on sea grass. In Florida decreased water clarity has led to smaller amounts of sea grass. Manatees are also killed by boats and trapped in nets. Florida has responded to the crisis by working to protect the creatures. 2021 saw a record number of manatee deaths. 2022 didn’t start well

manatee floating in water
Both manatees and dugongs are sometimes called sea cows because they graze in a similar fashioniPhoto by Iyan Darmawan on


Conservationists place much of the blame on pollution which is clouding the state’s freshwater. Sea grass depends on sunlight to grow. Pollution clouds the water and blocks the sunlight. If there is not enough sea grass the creatures will starve to death. Federal and state officials are enacting manatee feeding programs to offset the loss of food.

Dugongs and manatees are not without their defenders. In Australia the Australian Marine Conservation Society works to save the estimated 800 dugongs in that country In Florida quite a number of organizations including conservation groups and utilities are working to reverse the pollution in waterways and increase the amount of seagrass. In the modern world celebrity involvement is often a route to success. The manatees have singer Jimmy Buffett in their corner, Buffett is co-founder of the Save The Manatee Club.

Published by ursusrising

long time writer and editor living in Los Angeles

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