Whenever dugongs are spotted, as four were in 1997 off Africa's eastern coast, it catches the attention of conservationists.
That's because only a few hundred of these elusive mammals--also known as fork-tailed sea cows--remain in African waters, between Somalia and Mozambique.
Close relatives of the manatee, dugongs are gray with flesh-colored bellies and posteriors that end in fan-shaped tails, similar to those of dolphins. They use flippers for steering, balance and for paddling in shallow waters where they feed on sea grass. They breathe through nostrils on the tip of the snout, while the rest of the body is submerged. Males have ivory tusks.
Small herds populate the coastal waters of Africa and Southeast Asia; the largest population is found in the waters of north Australia. The dugong has a long life span-more than 70 years.
Dugongs are threatened from several sides--they're a popular target for hunters, they frequently become entangled in fishing nets and the sea grass they consume is vanishing because of dredging and toxic runoff from farms, which explains why any sighting of these mammals is eventful.
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