Two male sea cows from the River Safari set off on a 34-hour voyage to the Caribbean yesterday morning that could help save the rest of their kind.
Kai and Junior, two of the safari's 14 West Indian manatees, were put on a chartered flight to the French territory of Guadeloupe to take part in the world's first manatee repopulation programme.
The marine mammal, known locally in Guadeloupe as the "mother of the water", could once be found in large numbers there. However, they were over-hunted for their meat and can no longer be found there.
The hope is that Kai and Junior, as well as the 13 other manatees under the programme, could help repopulate the Caribbean region with their offspring, which would be introduced into the wild.
A farewell ceremony for the duo was held at the River Safari yesterday, attended by Mrs Laurence Beau, deputy head of mission from the Embassy of France to Singapore, as well as Mr Mike Barclay, group chief executive of Mandai Park Holdings, which operates the River Safari.
Kai and Junior were selected for the programme as they have reached sexual maturity, according to the River Safari. Kai is seven years old this year, and Junior is six.
The repopulation project is spearheaded by the National Park of Guadeloupe, and will involve 15 manatees from zoos around the world.
Zoo animals are used for the project as the National Park of Guadeloupe hopes to reduce the impact on wild populations. Furthermore, animals used to human contact would be easier to manage while under the programme.
The marine mammals will be sent to a 15,000ha bay where they will be protected from marine traffic by way of a no-entry zone.
Mr Barclay said: "Aside from maintaining a healthy living collection to educate and inspire an appreciation for wildlife among our park guests, we are also committed to breeding assurance populations for threatened species and, where possible, reintroducing them back into the wild."
According to the National Geographic, there are three species of manatees - the West Indian manatee, West African manatee and Amazonian manatee - all of which are threatened by extinction.
Although manatees cannot be found in Singapore, their close cousin, the dugong, can. Both manatees and dugongs are marine grazers - they are herbivores and feed on sea grass, algae and weeds.