Starving manatees flown to new home

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Four starving manatees, the rare sea cows believed to have inspired seafarers' tales of mermaids, have been flown from a remote Mexican lagoon to tourist parks on the Yucatan peninsula, 1,000 miles away.

After spotting the weakened sea creatures floundering offshore near oil rigs in Tabasco state, the Mexican government called Dr Greg Bossart, a marine mammal expert at Harbor Branch oceanographic institution in Florida. Dr Bossart has become renowned for rounding up endangered manatees off Belize and Mexico and finding them safe havens.

The odd grey creatures with human-like teats, resembling a cross between a mermaid and a hippopotamus, grow to about five feet long. They are protected, but still are hunted for their tough hides and oil. They eat large quantities of seaweed. The rescued animals may have overgrazed their lagoon.

Dr Bossart transported the manatees before dawn by lorry over rough roads for three hours, keeping their bristly skin moistened. A converted cargo jet took them on to the Maya Riviera.