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China Funds Protection of Endangered Sea Cows

A protection project for dugongs, an endangered sea mammal, is expected help save the species from extinction in south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

The project will cost 26 million yuan (US$3.8 million), 76 percent of which comes from the central budget and the rest from the regional and local governments, Lai Chunmiao, the Beihai Environment Monitoring Center director, told Xinhua on Monday.

The project, to be completed in 2009, includes the building of a scientific research center, a sea animal rescue center, watchtowers and the purchase of equipment, such as patrol boats, in the Hepu Dugong National Nature Reserve, the only sanctuary of its kind in the country for the animal.

Dugongs, also dubbed sea mermaids or sea cows, were once common in the Shatian shallow sea area in Hepu County, the animal's major habitat in the country before the 1980s. But the proliferation of fish farms and seawater pollution in the area caused the animal's numbers to decrease sharply. Local residents believed they might have become extinct or moved elsewhere.

Lai said there was no exact numbers for the animal in the area.

The 350-sq-km reserve was established in 1992. In recent years, there had been increasing sightings by fishermen of the docile animal.

Dugongs live on sea grass and can grow to 3 meters and weigh as much as 500 kg. They inhabit shallow, tropical waters throughout the Indo-Pacific region. Australia has the largest concentration of dugongs in the world, estimated at 70,000 in 1991.

However, due to human threat, the animal has been listed as a species vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

(Xinhua News Agency October 14, 2008)

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