HONG KONG, Aug 24 (Reuters) - The dugong, a gentle dugong marine mammal that has frequented China's southern waters for hundreds of years, has become functionally extinct in the country, a new study said on Wednesday.
Research by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences said fishing, ship strikes and human-caused habitat loss have seen the number of dugongs in Chinese waters decrease rapidly from the 1970s onwards.
With no evidence of their presence in China since 2008, the research shows that "this is the first functional extinction of a large mammal in China's coastal waters," the report said.
The dugong, whose diet is highly dependent on sea grass, has been classified as a Grade 1 National Key Protected Animal since 1988 by China's Sate Council.
Their marine habitats have been rapidly degraded by humans and although restoration and recovery efforts are a key priority in China, "restoration takes time that dugongs may no longer have," the report said.
Found in coastal waters from East Africa to Vanuatu, and as far north as Japan, they are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Professor Samuel Turvey of ZSL's Institute of Zoology, a co-author of the study, said the likely disappearance of dugongs in China was a devastating loss.
"Their absence will not only have a knock-on effect on ecosystem function, but also serves as a wake-up call - a sobering reminder that extinctions can occur before effective conservation actions are developed."
The study was done by a team of international scientists who conducted interviews in 66 fishing communities across four Chinese provinces along the coastal region of the South China Sea.
The authors said they would welcome any evidence that dugongs might still exist in China. They recommended that the species regional status be reassessed as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct).
(Reporting by Farah Master. Editing by Gerry Doyle)
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