July 17, 2003 Known worldwide for its diversity of large species, Tanzania could soon lose one of its most unique mammals--the dugong--to a combination of net entanglement and habitat destruction. This close relative of the manatee may soon become locally extinct without measures to protect it where it still persists along the Tanzanian coastline, according to a new report from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and other groups.
"It is clear that dugongs are now critically endangered here, and certainly Tanzania's rarest large mammal," said Dr. Tim Davenport, WCS conservation biologist and a co-author of the recent report, which has found that these rare mammals have been eliminated from all but two locations in Tanzanian waters.
Formerly common along the coast of Tanzania, the dugong--a long-lived, slowly reproducing animal that grows up to 11 feet in length and almost 900 pounds--has been in dramatic decline since the 1970s. This decrease in population is the result of hunting and other threats such as accidental entanglement in fishing nets and the destruction of coastal habitats with seagrass, the dugong's primary food source. This decline has occurred in spite of the fact that the species has been nationally protected since 1970. On the international level, dugongs are considered vulnerable throughout their current range within tropical and subtropical coastal waters of the eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans, and are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which bans all trade.
In this first nationwide assessment for dugongs in Tanzania, conservationists from WCS, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and The Mafia Island Turtle & Dugong Conservation Programme conducted interviews with 420 fishermen from 57 villages along the Tanzanian coast. Out of this group, only 32 sightings of dugongs were reported, and only 8 of these sightings involved living animals.
"Effectively managed sanctuaries are probably the only realistic way to prevent dugong extinction in Tanzania," said WCS researcher Dr. Daniela De Luca, who helped coordinate the research project. In addition to establishing sanctuaries in the two areas where dugongs may remain, the report recommends that fishermen should be encouraged to participate in dugong conservation through financial incentives.
Researchers from WCS and their regional partners will now focus their survey efforts on the two coastal areas where dugongs are thought to persist.
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