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The record-breaking drought in the Amazon basin has led to "uncontrolled" hunting of one of the world's most bizarre and gentle aquatic mammals, the threatened Amazonian Manatee (Trichechus inunguis), according to Brazilian environmental police.

They estimate that at least 300 manatees have been killed by hunters since September, when the Amazon and its tributaries began falling to their lowest levels since records began at the beginning of the last century.

The slow-moving herbivores, which can reach 3m in length and weigh some 450kg, become vulnerable to hunters as they take refuge in shallow lakes isolated by the retreating rivers. To make matters worse, the inability of police boats to navigate effectively in the parched channels of the basin allows the hunting to continue unchecked.

Manatees also known as sea cows, or "ox-fish" (peixe boi) in Portuguese, belong to the Sirenian order of sea mammals, so-called because of the somewhat unlikely legend that they were mistaken for mermaids by lonely sailors. They in turn belong to a wider group that also includes elephants and hyraxes.

The Amazonian species of manatee is considered Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List - which means it is on the first rung of the extinction threat ladder. It has suffered from widespread hunting, which has a particularly
serious impact on numbers because of the species' low rate of reproduction.

So these current reports of literally hundreds of manatees being taken in a short period are very worrying for
wildlife researchers.

The estimated numbers were reported in the online version of the Folha de São Paulo newspaper. They are based on reports to the state police, from informants known as "environmental agents", volunteers from traditional fishing communities who act as the eyes and ears of the state enforcement authorities in
very remote regions.

The commander of the environmental battalion of the Amazonas military police, Major Miguel Mouzinho Marinho, is quoted by Folha as saying that while patrols have been despatched to some areas where the illegal hunting has been reported, other locations are simply unreachable in present conditions. "Unfortunately we have lost control of the situation," he says. "Nature took years to recuperate the species, and now we have this killing."

The National Amazon Research Institute (INPA), based in the state capital Manaus, has been caring for an orphan female manatee calf, rescued from a lake after her mother had been killed by hunters. The institute estimates that in just one "sustainable development reserve", 400km from Manaus, at least 200 manatees have been killed.

"That means there are 30 tonnes of meat on the market," says researcher Anselmo d'Affonseca. "That's a matter for the police."

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