River Safari sends two manatees to the Carribean for international breeding programme

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Manatees Kai and Junior lazing in a pool during their farewell ceremony at the River Safari, on Aug 7, 2016. ST PHOTO: AUDREY TAN

SINGAPORE - Pokemon hunters are out and about catching cute animal-like creatures in Poke Balls, and over at the River Safari, two male sea cows are preparing themselves for similar adventure.

They will soon be packed into crates for a 35-hour voyage to the Carribean, but not to a collector hoping to "catch them all".

Instead, West Indian manatees Kai and Junior could be what "saves them all". They are being sent to the Carribean as part of an international programme that aims to increase the population of these animals in Guadeloupe in France - the historic home of the species.

A farewell ceremony for the manatees was held on Sunday afternoon (Aug 7) at the River Safari.

It was 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 manages the River Safari.

Kai and Junior are among the 14 manatees at the River Safari. They were selected as they are young, and 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 impact on wild populations. Furthermore, animals used to human contact would make them easier to manage while under the programme.

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The marine mammals will be sent to a 15,000-hectare bay, which will protect the manatees from marine traffic by way of a no-entry zone. The future offspring from the initial 15 manatees will be reintroduced to the wild to repopulate the region.

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According to the National Geographic, there are three species of manatees, all of which are threatened by extinction. As they are large and slow-moving marine mammals, they are often easy targets for hunters who kill them for their oil and hides. They are also vulnerable to being hit by boats and carelessly discarded fishing nets.

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.

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The main difference, said Mr Marcus Chua, the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum's curator of mammals and birds, is the shape of their tails.

"A manatee's tail looks like lollipop, while a dugong's tail looks like a dolphin's tail," he said.

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