Rare Japanese Dugong Threatened by U.S. Military Base

August 23, 2007

The rare Okinawa dugong has been classified as "critically endangered" on Japan's Ministry of the Environment Red List, the Japanese equivalent to the U.S. government's endangered species list, officials announced this month.

About 100,000 dugongs—relatives of the manatees—live in the coastal waters of the South Pacific and Indian oceans.

The Okinawa dugong is the northernmost population, and scientists believe only about 50 remain.

Environmental groups say the dugong's addition to the Red List is long overdue and expressed hope that the new designation will come with stronger actions to protect the marine mammals.

Specifically, conservationists hope that the move will back up legal action already underway to halt the expansion of a U.S. military base on the island of Okinawa into prime dugong habitat.

"This listing is a significant action," said Peter Galvin, conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity in Shelter Cove, California.

"The dugong is already listed as a protected cultural monument in Japan and has been known to be critically endangered for quite some time," Galvin said.

"But [until now] the Japanese government had not actually officially placed it on the list."

Military Threat

Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyu Islands, an archipelago that stretches from Japan's southern island of Kyushu to Taiwan (see map).

Dugongs play a central role in the culture and mythology of Okinawa, Galvin said. The animals are associated with creation and mermaid myths and are considered harbingers of natural disasters such as tsunamis.

(Related: "Dugongs: 'Mermaids' in Danger?" [March 8, 2004].)

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