Manatee cow finds new home, pressure to breed, in French zoo

By Thomson Reuters Mar 27, 2024 | 8:24 AM

PARIS (Reuters) – A Paris zoo has welcomed a young manatee cow from a zoo in central France, hoping it will breed with one of its males and help secure the future of the species that has been threatened by pollution, a loss of habitat and injuries.

The Parc Zoologique de Paris hopes that the two-year-old female, which it named Unai, will mate with one of its three male manatees aged 15 to 35 years, as part of a Europe-wide programme to breed the species in captivity.

Also called “sea cows” because they graze on underwater vegetation, the docile mammals live in the shallow waters of the Caribbean, in the southeast coast of the United States, and in certain estuaries and rivers in French Guiana.

The threatened species has seen its numbers dwindle to less than 10,000 amid a loss of habitat, injuries from contact with the propellers of ships, and pollution, conservationists say.

Their survival in the wild is also threatened by a slow reproduction cycle and limited range of water temperatures they can tolerate, making them vulnerable to climate change.

“Their pregnancies last more than one year, and then there’s a long weaning period. Everything takes a long time with sea cows,” said Zoological Park director Alexis Lecu, as Unai was lifted from a truck into a temporary pool.

Unai, who came from the Beauval zoo in central France, will reach reproductive age in the coming year and be gradually introduced to the three males, who were cruising in their basin, nibbling on romaine lettuce.

Lecu, referring to manatees’ sensitivity to water temperature, said the sea cow could contract pneumonia in water below 20 degrees Celsius (68°F) and thrived poorly above 30C as well.

“It is very hard for them to adapt rapidly to climate change, especially when the effects come fast, like today,” he said.

(Reporting by Antony Paone, writing by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Bernadette Baum)