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Conserving the Manatee

30/03/2016 17:02 | Updated 30 March 2016

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Manatees are definitely a fan favourite in the animal world. They go along with the likes of sloths and penguins, everyone likes them. That soft spot hasn't helped their populations in years gone by however, as Manatees have been pushed almost to extinction. Thankfully, though, their numbers are recovering.

Sea Cows are divided into three species. West India, West African and Amazonian, all situated in the areas of their name sake. This means that their territories are already quite small and fragile to change. Just ask the manatees long lost relative, the Stella's Sea Cow. The biggest of its species, Stella's Sea Cow was a nine metre long manatee species that went extinct in the 1700's thanks to over poaching. It became extinct just 27 years after it was discovered by Europeans.

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Today, each of the three species of manatee are listed by the ICUN as Vulnerable. In the states, it is illegal to harm a manatee by both federal and Florida state law. America has taken their protective detail of the manatee one stage further however. Two research ships used by NASA were especially fitted with jet propulsion systems instead of propeller propulsion, as the ships frequently crossed through manatee habitats and the changed engines are far friendlier to large animals.

As with many other large marine mammals, one threat to the manatee has been ship collisions. Fishing and pleasure vessels in Florida have been responsible for a number of manatee deaths in recent years, resulting in protected sanctuaries being created which prohibit admission of certain types of ship. These leave scares on the skin on the gently giants, as you can see in this picture.

Risks to the manatee still do include hunting too as, being a traditional food for many Caribbean island peoples, hunting of manatee is ceremonial. The nostalgia factor with these animals is just as large as the manatees themselves. Not only are they revered by people indigenous to their habitats, but they considered being the origins of mermaid myths in centuries past, started by those travelling through and capturing fleeting glimpses.

The plight of the manatee is severe, but there's still plenty of positive. Conservation efforts in their habitats have seen roaring success in the past decade. In 2014, over a thousand more West Indian Manatees were counted during a census previously taken in 2010. That's a huge improvement. These efforts have come about from large scale sponsorship from mainland America. Such a large and iconic animal attracts plenty of media attention, meaning that drumming up fund raising is relatively straight forward.

Unfortunately, no efforts have been made as yet to protect the Amazonian manatee. Colombia alone among South American nations has attempted strides forward with conservation, but with little backing and support those plans didn't last long. Oil spills are a new threat to the Amazon Manatee that is not a problem by the others, making the list of potential hazards longer still.

Further afield, six African nations joined forces to create a data base of knowledge and research in 2007 on the African manatee; starting phase 1 of what was hoped would be a long term project to help the endangered mammal. So successful was the effort, that phase 2 was initiated to further distribute and gather more of that information across other African nations. This is still going on today and has been so successful and popular that it is now being backed by Wetlands International.

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Worldwide, there is estimated to be only four thousand West Indian Manatee. That number only climbs as high as about 15 thousand when including the others. Due to the slow conservation efforts to this point, those numbers are estimates, but they do give you a clear indication of the seriousness of the issue.

Not as easy, is getting people on the ground (or in the water) to work hands on with the manatees in conservation and rehabilitation. Frontier offers a volunteering placement with the manatees assisting in research, care and preserving of the manatee and their habitat.

If you want to help out the manatee, check out the Frontier Manatee Conservation Project.

By Guy Bezant - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs conservation, development, teaching and adventure travel projects in over 50 countries worldwide - so join us and explore the world!

See more from our volunteers #Frontiervolunteer

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