Dugongs, a marine species, dwell in shallow waters and are strictly herbivorous animals that have been referred to as the cows of the sea. These enormous vegetarians can be found in warm coastal waters from East Africa to Australia, including the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and the Pacific. Dugongs are related to manatees and have a similar appearance and behaviour of manatees. However, Dugongs are smaller than manatees. Dugongs graze on underwater grasses and aquatic plants, rooting them with their sensitive snouts and chomping them with their rough lips. These mammals can stay under water for six minutes before surfacing. Dugongs spend much of their time alone or in pairs. These species are the most threatened mammals in the world.
“Dugongs are under imminent threat owing to many human activities including fishing, hunting, pollution and development projects”
-Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation, M.G.C. Sooriyabandara
He said that Dugongs could be found in Sri Lanka along the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay and added they were vulnerable to extinction under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. In addition, he said that the Dugong is a protected species in Sri Lanka under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance.
Team leader of the Ocean Resources Conservation Association, Prasanna Weerakkody said that dugongs were protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance but however, they were still facing direct threats as follows:
1. Hunting: legal (i.e. culturally sanctioned) and illegal
2. Incidental capture in fishing gear. ( Entangled in fish nets)
3. Boat strikes and boating activities (e.g. acoustic pollution)
4. Damage/modification/loss of habitat caused by human settlement on coasts, shipping, trawling, destructive fishing, natural processes (e.g. cyclones and tsunamis)
5. Threats to sea grass (including untreated sewage disposal, coastal dredging and reclamation, in-shore commercial trawling, agricultural pollution)
6. Chemical pollution (e.g. oil spills and heavy metal loads)
7. Climate change (extreme weather events and high temperatures)
8. Development projects
Dugongs face a threat because of the sea grass habitat loss or degradation and coastal development or industrial activities that cause water pollution. If there is not enough sea grass to eat, then the dugong does not breed normally. This makes the conservation of their shallow water marine habitat very important. They also often become victims of by-catch, the accidental entanglement in fishing nets.
“These species were highly protected during the war period owing to the prohibition of the entrance to the marine area by the LTTE and fishing. However, once the war was ended, the limited population of dugongs started to diminish. According to the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, it is illegal to hunt or kill dugongs,” Mr. Weerakkody highlighted.
Ranil Nanayakkara from the Biodiversity Education and Research (BEAR) said that traditionally dugongs had also been prized for their hides and oil (valued as a treatment for the hulls of wooden boats).
The following are some important services of dugongs.
- Dugong meat is considered to have medicinal and aphrodisiac properties.
- Dugongs immensely contribute towards the proper maintainence of the sea grass grown in the seabed
- Dugongs have become an important tourist attraction. Tourists can swim with them or observe them from boats.
- Dugongs are economically valuable while alive as a form of eco-tourism
Mr. Nanayakkara said that the Dugong and Sea Conservation Project would enhance the effectiveness of conservation of dugongs and their sea grass ecosystems through community-based stewardship. It would also increase the availability of critical knowledge for conservation action for dugongs and sea grass.
Let’s contribute to conserve these innocent dugongs and their sea grass habitat. The significance of dugongs and seagrasses is little at local, national, regional and global levels. This is true from a communal perspective. Therefore, education and awareness programmes need to be developed among the general public in terms of ways of conserving dugongs and sea grass. Further, the strict laws should be regulated to penalize those who illegally slaughter the dugongs and destroy the seagrass by which they survive.
Deputy Director of Conservation Research and Training at the Wildlife Department, Dr. Lakshman Peiris mentioned that several incidents had been reported in the recent past where Dugongs were washed ashore and killed due to malpractices of the people.
“Therefore, projects in collaboration with the Ocean Research & Conservation Association, National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency and Sri Lanka Turtle Conservation Project, have been started to promote the conservation of dugongs (Dugong dugon) and their associated sea grass eco-systems,” Mr. Peiris said.
The key partners of the project are the Global Environment Facility (GEF), Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and the United Nations Environment Programme.
The Dugong and Sea Grass Conservation Project covers eight countries including Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Madagascar and Malaysia.
“The project has gathered the information through research and transactions with fishing communities in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay. Disseminating this information locally and internationally would greatly facilitate the conservation efforts to protect the Dugongs and conserve the sea grass meadows,” Mr. Peiris added.
The Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project comprises eight components.