The rare West African seahorse has been filmed in the wild for possibly the first time. Researchers hope to learn more about the species and help create a more sustainable trade in the animal. It's estimated that around 150 million seahorses are sold annually for traditional medicine worldwide.

New footage is being released today of an elusive species of seahorse, a charismatic group of fish that has been declining thanks to pollution, overfishing, and other problems. Researchers from the Zoological Society of London say they filmed a specimen of the brightly colored West African seahorse (Hippocampus algiricus) off the coast of Senegal.

The seahorse can be seen bobbing about the water, then being caught by fishermen, and then released, unharmed according to the Zoological Society.

The exclusive video comes courtesy of researcher Kate West, who was cruising on a local fishing boat as part of a joint research project between ZSL’s Project Seahorse, Imperial College London, and the University of British Columbia (UBC).

West said in a statement, “It’s shocking that so little is known about the West African seahorse when the amount of trade officially documented is in excess of a tonne. This seahorse is one of two native species caught locally for export around the world.”

“Poor visibility and general diving conditions off the coast of West Africa make field study more difficult than in other areas where seahorses are found, so no research has been done on this species, and nothing is known about its habitat, life cycle, or population status,” West said. “That is why this study, the first of its kind, is so important for future efforts in marine conservation.”

According to Project Seahorse, there is a booming trade in West African seahorses to supply treatments in traditional Chinese medicine. The project estimates that some 600,000 of the seahorses are exported annually.

Amanda Vincent, the co-founder and director of Project Seahorse and an associate professor at UBC, said in a statement, “In recent years, the West African seahorse has become highly sought, along with many other seahorse species. Our fieldwork — the first ever study of this species — is revealing the fishing and trade pressures they face, and how populations can be sustained.” Thanks in part to Vincent’s work, seahorses were added to the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 2002, meaning trade in them is restricted.

<p>An Amur&nbsp;<a href="http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/leopard/">leopard</a>&nbsp;named Usi from Nebraska's&nbsp;<a href="http://www.omahazoo.com/">Omaha Zoo</a>&nbsp;is captured in mid-prowl in this picture by&nbsp;<a href="http://www.joelsartore.com/">National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore</a>.</p>

An Amur leopard named Usi from Nebraska's Omaha Zoo is captured in mid-prowl in this picture by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore.

Photograph by Joel Sartore

Chris Ransom, the West and North Africa program manager at ZSL, said he hopes his group’s work will better enable the Senegalese government to crack down on seahorse poaching. “Together we will help seahorse populations thrive,” he said.

The seahorse researchers hope to publish their findings from Senegal in the new year. This video, and their preliminary findings, are one more example of how poorly known many of the ocean’s species are, even iconic ones like seahorses. It also shows that a lot more needs to be done to protect them.

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