Mermaid‘ sea mammals facing extinction - UN

COLOMBIA: February 14, 2002

CARTAGENA - Dugongs - the bewhiskered sea-mammals that probably inspired sailors‘ tales of mermaids - could become extinct in 25 years, the United Nations said this week.

Pollution, coastal development, fishermens‘ nets and trophy hunting have caused a „catastrophic decline“ in the dugong population in recent years, said the United Nations Environment Program, reducing their numbers to an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 worldwide.

Although rarely seen by humans, the heftily sized tropical mammal - one of the last four surviving species of sea cow - has left its mark on popular lore by inspiring the mermaid myth.

Female dugong swim upright and hold their calves to their breast with a fin while nursing. It was this sight that most likely stirred the longings of the lovelorn sailors in lonely stretches of tropical seas.

„From a distance, in a foggy area, their imaginations probably went wild,“ oceanographer Timothy Foresman, director of the Environment Program‘s Division of Early Warning and Assessment, told Reuters in the Caribbean port of Cartagena.

So far, dugongs have vanished, or nearly vanished, from the coasts of Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, the Comoros islands, Madagascar, the Seychelles and Mauritius, countries that once were home to herds numbering in the hundreds.

Experts called for the creation of dugong sanctuaries and the reduction of pollutants that destroy seagrass.

The dugong lives in coastal areas in the tropics and subtropics, grazes on seagrass and weighs up to about 330 pounds (150 kg). It has a large tail fin, two small front flippers and a shovel-shaped head with small eyes.

„The dugong is an indicator for the health of the environment. It is a clear signal that the living conditions are changing and that other products of the sea are decreasing,“ said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP‘s executive director, presenting the first global study on the mammal.

A dugong population grows only five percent a year in the best of conditions, experts say, so any disruption in its habitat can cause a chronic decline.

The dugong is also hunted for meat, and its tusks are prized as aphrodisiacs and used to make pipes and amulets. Many have been hit by boat propellers and killed.

„The species may not exist anymore in 25 years‘ time,“ said Achim Steiner, director general of The World Conservation Union, which contributed to the U.N. report.

Story by Ibon Villelabeitia REUTERS NEWS SERVICE

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW ABOUT AND HELP THE DUGONG PROGRAMME OF ECOP-marine IN THE WESTERN INDIAN OCEAN, THE GULF OF ADEN AND THE ARABIAN SEA, PLEASE  WRITE TO dugong@ecoterra.net