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Monday, June 14, 1999 Published at 02:48 GMT 03:48 UK


Gulf project to save the seacow

About 2,000 dugongs are believed to be in UAE waters

By Gulf Correspondent Frank Gardner

The United Arab Emirates has launched an ambitious scheme to protect one of the world's rarest and most reclusive sea-creatures - the dugong.

The aquatic mammal, also known as a seacow, has been driven out of much of its habitat around the world.

Researchers plan to use satellite technology to track the animals before setting up a reserve in the Gulf.

The huge dugong, or seacow, is so rarely seen in the Gulf that few people here in the UAE even know of its existence.

The slow-moving animal, which weighs up to 300kg, grazes on sea grass in the shallows.

It has to surface every few minutes to breathe and frequently becomes entangled in fishing nets.

Four-year plan

Although researchers believe there are close to 2,000 dugongs in UAE waters, so little is known about them that a government environmental agency has decided to act.

The Abu Dhabi based Environment Research and Wildlife Development Agency has launched a four-year programme to track the animals' movements.

Agency spokesman Ahmed Khuder told the BBC the programme would cost just over $300,000 and would involve aerial surveys of the Gulf's coast.

He said that the UAE has the second highest population of dugongs in the world, after Australia, but that they had disappeared from many Indian Ocean countries in recent years.

The research programme is due to have two phases. After the initial aerial survey it is planned to fit satellite tags onto a small number of dugongs to monitor their range and movements.

According to the secretary general at the agency, Dr Saif al-Ghais, the study would then lead to protected areas being chosen where dugongs could live safely while being studied by marine biologists.

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