Seahorses are thought to have evolved at least 40 million years ago and have survived from ancient times with only very small changes in body structure or organ function. They are unusual fish that have captured the imagination of artists, writers and poets, being found in the mythology, legends, folklore and superstitions of almost every country in the world. In fact some people still believe that these endearing creatures exist only in fables and children's stories. The fact is however, that these creatures are just as real as the threats that they face in our world today.
Given their unusual appearance and extraordinary biology, it is not surprising that Asians have credited seahorses with magical powers. Seahorses are therefore exploited as traditional medicines. This use has led to concerns that the natural seahorse stocks are being depleted at a rapid and unsustainable rate.
Why the Knysna seahorse is considered the most endangered seahorse in the world
The Knysna seahorse is not exploited for traditional medicines. However, according to the IUCN's red data book, they are listed as the most endangered seahorse in the world. The reason for this is primarily due to their exceptionally limited distribution range as they are endemic to a few southern Cape estuaries. A recent survey of these estuaries, conducted by the Seahorse Research Group as part of the Green Trust funded "Knysna Seahorse Project" confirmed that the Knysna seahorse is only found in three southern Cape estuaries: The Knysna, Swartvlei and Keurbooms estuaries. This means that if these estuaries are not correctly managed and conserved, South Africa's only seahorse species may be wiped out for good. Conservationists now say that it is important that funding become available to continue the monitoring of these populations.
A happy end for the Knysna seahorse?
Strangely enough even though the Knysna seahorse is so unique and endangered, up until two years ago, other than a few short research trips, no work had been done on the Knysna seahorse. This is a major problem when trying to protect the species. For the past two years the Seahorse Research Group (Rhodes University) has completed work on quantifying the seahorse populations and habitats. This data has helped greatly in increasing awareness and protection of the Knysna seahorse but only further study will be able to assess the stability of the species. The status of the seahorse populations will give an indication of the health of the lagoon acting as an early warning system for any serious problems in the lagoon. This is of particular importance to the oyster industry and other groups that require the resources of a healthy estuary. It may then be a very important exercise to conduct an economic analysis of the financial benefits from the Knysna seahorse and potential costs of its extinction.