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The world population of dugongs — the marine mammal also known as the manatee, ‘sea cow’ or ‘elephant of the sea’— is under threat from human activities, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The decline of the dugong — which is a key ‘indicator species’, commonly used to infer the health of its environment — is a warning that the world’s oceans are also being degraded.

The Dugong: Status Report and Action Plans for Countries and Territories in its Range says that pollution from the land, coastal developments, boat traffic and fishermen’s nets are key threats to the animal.

“Dugongs appear to have disappeared or already become extinct in some places,” says the lead author of the report, Helene March of James Cook University in Townsville, Australia.

Few, if any, of the animals can now be found off the coasts of Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, the Comoros, Madagascar, Seychelles and Mauritius — countries that previously boasted significant populations with herds in the hundreds.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP executive director, says that the report — which was released on 12 February in Cartegena, Colombia at a meeting of UNEP’s governing council — “shows that we must strengthen our efforts to reduce marine pollution”.

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