When thinking of manatees, most people picture the odd-looking, bulky and friendly Florida manatee that so easily interacts with humans in their environment. Its equally odd-looking, slightly smaller and more slender closest relative, the Antillean manatee, is not as friendly, and for good reasons.

Wild Antillean manatee travelling in 2017 near Portillo, on the north-east coast of the Dominican Republic. Photo: José Alejandro Alvarez.

For centuries Antillean manatees were hunted throughout the Wider Caribbean Region for their reputedly tasty meat and other body parts. Despite now being categorized as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, and being legally protected by most countries in their distribution range, manatees still face a host of threats. Inhabiting freshwater and shallow coastal marine environments heavily used by people leaves them vulnerable to entanglement in fisheries bycatch, collisions with water craft, chemical and noise pollution, and degradation and loss of habitat.

In general, Antillean manatees are evasive. Shying away from humans is a strategy that has helped them survive but has also made them difficult to study. Many countries lack basic information on manatee distribution, population size and trend. So how do you put together the pieces of the conservation puzzle for an Endangered aquatic mammal in a Caribbean island with two developing countries where both capacity for research and resources are scarce?

Manatees in the Dominican Republic are evasive and primarily inhabit marine waters. This image was captured in 2017 using a drone near Portillo. Photo: Marvin del Cid.

I conducted a thorough review of documentary archives from pre-Columbian times to 2013 to summarize the state of knowledge of manatees in Hispaniola. This comprehensive approach included piecing together information from the Dominican Republic and Haiti (the two countries located on Hispaniola island) to identify what is known about manatees and which information gaps need to be assessed, and to propose recommendations to improve the contemporary conservation of manatees in both countries.

I obtained a surprising number of over 800 manatee sighting records around Hispaniola. In the Dominican Republic, both historical and recent manatee sightings were widespread along the coast and mostly occurred in marine waters but some occurred in brackish waters and rivers. There was much less information available for Haiti, but historical records showed that manatees were once widely distributed along the coast and occupied freshwater habitats. Studies dedicated to manatees in Hispaniola have been scarce and discontinuous. Overall, the population is perceived to be declining but there is still no reliable estimate of the manatee population size in Hispaniola.

Field work for a manatee study in 2008 in Caño Estero Hondo, on the northwest coast of the Dominican Republic, with biology students of the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo. Photos: Haydée Domínguez.

I was able to gather a great deal of information on manatee hunting methods and uses over time that provide context for understanding their current situation. My review also provides a detailed account of the legislation protecting manatees and their habitat in Hispaniola. Regarding conservation actions, for a long time the Dominican Republic has invested in policies, marine protected areas, stranding networks, and education and awareness activities that have made a difference in the public’s perception of manatees. Although manatees are not officially protected in Haiti, important steps have been taken recently with the creation of Haiti’s first two marine protected areas in 2013 and 2014. If both countries commit to following recommendations aimed at reducing anthropogenic mortality and habitat degradation, it will not be too late for manatees in Hispaniola.

Celebrating the first National Manatee Day in the Dominican Republic in 2018. Photo: Haydée Dominguez.

I believe this review will be a valuable reference for all stakeholders involved in manatee research and conservation in the Dominican Republic and Haiti in the future. More generally, I hope it inspires other conservationists to make the most out of the seemingly limited information available, including historical data, on a particular threatened species in their study area.

Author volunteering with the rehabilitation of a stranded female manatee calf at the National Aquarium of the Dominican Republic in 2008. Photo: José Alejandro Alvarez.

The article History and conservation status of the Antillean manatee Trichechus manatus manatus in Hispaniola is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Haydée M. Domínguez Tejo is currently a Research Scientist at the Marine Biology Research Centre of the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo (CIBIMA-UASD), Dominican Republic. Haydée earned her PhD from Duke University in 2016. Her research has focused on manatees in Hispaniola since 2006, including aspects of their history, ecology, distribution and conservation.