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Seven Worlds, One Planet

Learning to live with the manatee next door

There are times when drastic, far-reaching action is needed to save our wildlife.

These gentle giants are often at risk from boat strike.

Scientific methods need to be invented, new technology is required, complicated breeding programmes have to introduced. It can be risky, expensive and fraught with peril.

Then there are times when completely simple, sensible things are engaged to change the fortunes of an endangered species.

Manatees are absolutely fascinating, compelling creatures. Distantly related to elephants, they are massive aquatic mammals that can grow up to 4m in length and weigh in at an impressive half a ton. Despite their size, they are gentle, unprepossessing animals. In fact, this ability to fade into the background, despite their girth, is leading to a major problem for the species.

It is thought that manatees could have been inspriation for tales of mermaids.
It is thought that manatees could have been inspriation for tales of mermaids.

The manatees are attracted to the warm coastal waters around Florida thanks to the abundance of naturally occurring hot springs. They once gathered here in their thousands, but during the last century manatee numbers started to dramatically decline.

This was because humans were also attracted to the abundant delights of the Sunshine State and a massive period of development began. Homes were built and hotels erected. Millions flocked to the area, much like the manatees.

But more people meant more boats and, remarkably, manatees are not the easiest animals to spot when they’re in the water. As mammals, they need to constantly return to the water’s surface to breathe. Once they are close to the surface they are vulnerable to boat strikes. Many manatees bear the scars of propeller blades and horrific outboard engine injuries.

By the 1990s, only a thousand manatees remained in Florida waters and it seemed there was a real chance that they may soon vanish forever, but a dedicated bunch of local conservationists decided they couldn’t let this happen. This unique beast had to be saved.

Manatees are actually distant relatives of elephants.
Manatees are actually distant relatives of elephants.

A simple series of measures were introduced designed to keep the animals safe. Strict speed limits for boats with punishing fines for those breaking them have been applied to a number of waterways. Safe zones that are free of all nautical traffic makes sure that there is a protected area where the manatees can gather unharmed and the monitoring of the general health and well-being of all the manatees around Florida’s coast was increased.

These simple measures has helped to increase the population of Florida’s manatees to over 8000 and, for the first time in 50 years, they are no longer considered an endangered animal, which is a remarkable achievement.

And there has been an added bonus for the human population. So many visitors now want to come and see and swim with the manatees that the local tourist industry has blossomed. Millions of dollars have been added to the Florida economy as manatee fans snorkel and dive with these amazing creatures.

So a threatened species has been saved from extinction with benefits for the manatees and their human neighbours just by a few simple changes. If only saving all endangered wildlife was that easy.

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