River Safari’s Kai and Junior are set to become the first two manatees in over a century to arrive in Guadeloupe. The pair are pioneer animals for the world’s first manatee re-population programme.
Spearheaded by the National Park of Guadeloupe, the historic conservation project aims to reintroduce the Antillean manatees in Guadeloupe through a breeding programme with a founding group of 15 manatees from various zoological institutions. An important cultural symbol locally, the West Indian manatee species has been extinct in the waters of Guadeloupe since the beginning of the 20th century as a result of excessive hunting activities.
Kai and Junior will be the first to arrive at the Grand Cul-de-sac Marin, a protected bay which measures 15,000 hectares and would shield the manatees from boating traffic by way of an enforced no-entry zone. The future offspring from this founding group will be reintroduced to the wild, eventually repopulating the Caribbean region.
Dr. Cheng Wen-Haur, Deputy Chief Executive Officer and Chief Life Sciences Officer, Wildlife Reserves Singapore, said, “We have been very successful in breeding manatees in our care for the past 20 years. We are very happy that this success will now contribute to restocking part of the species’ historic range in the Caribbean where it has been extinct for the past century. Projects like this are one of many ways that we are contributing to the survival of species in the wild.”
Kai and Junior have been selected as they have reached sexual maturity, and are best pals inside the aquarium due to age similarity. Kai was born on 8 October 2009 and Junior was born on 2 February 2010. They are almost inseparable, and can often be spotted swimming and feeding together.
Seven-year-old male manatee, Kai, was chosen as he had reached sexual maturity and is best friends in the aquarium with Junior. Male manatees can reach sexual maturity from three to four years old onwards. PHOTO CREDIT: WILDLIFE RESERVES SINGAPORE
Kai and Junior’s flight to Guadeloupe will occur within the next few weeks, and is likely to take more than 30 hours with several pit stops. Although a date has not been set, aquarists have been busy conducting operant conditioning, and spending extra time with them before the final farewell. Canvas conditioning is required to ensure that both manatees are comfortable and familiar with the material on export day. Kai and Junior will take turns to be guided to rest on their canvases, and a hoist will then lift the canvas to place the manatees inside their open top traveling crates, custom-fitted to their lengths.
These crates are lined with thick sponge to ensure that Kai and Junior remain comfortable throughout the flight, and also to absorb water which has to be periodically sprayed on the manatees to keep their skin moist. In true VIP style, Kai and Junior will have their personal flight entourage, which includes veterinarians from the National Park of Guadeloupe, and two aquarists from River Safari.
“The ultimate conservation goal would be to reintroduce threatened animal species to the wild and yet it is a very rare opportunity for this to happen as there is a severe lack of suitable wild habitats, among other challenges. We are very happy that the manatees will have such an opportunity. We are confident that Kai and Junior will do well for the good of their species”, said Keith So, Deputy Head Aquarist at River Safari.
Manatees are currently listed as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Their numbers have declined in the last century due to hunting pressures, entrapment in commercial nets and collisions with propellers and motorboats.