Re­search­ing the demise of the dugong

The reclu­sive dugong, the an­i­mal that seems to be every­one’s friend, is fall­ing vic­tim to poor fishing prac­tices

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By ZHAO XU zhaoxu@chi­

Channa Su­raweera was shocked when the pic­ture of a dead dugong jumped into his eyes for the first time. See­ing the thick red ves­tige un­der its nose in­di­cated how blood would have spurted through its nos­trils, says Su­raweera, an of­fi­cer with the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Depart­ment in Sri Lanka.

“It must have been an ex­tremely painful death. Three dugong deaths have been re­ported since the begin­ning of this year, all by Sri Lankan Navy.”

The dugong, a medium-sized marine mam­mal, can be seen in aquar­i­ums around the world, their chubby face, gen­tle eyes and what seems like a per­ma­nent smile en­dear­ing them to mil­lions. How­ever, out­side the haven that aquar­i­ums of­fer, in many wa­ters that the crea­ture used to call home dugongs have been hunted down to ex­tinc­tion or near ex­tinc­tion.

The wa­ters of Sri Lanka are no ex­cep­tion, in­clud­ing the Gulf of Man­nar, a large shal­low bay be­tween the south­east­ern tip of In­dia and the west coast of Sri Lanka.

“Ev­ery two months or so we lose an an­i­mal,” says Ar­jan Ra­ja­suriya, of the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture. Since Jan­uary 2015, Ra­ja­suriya, who is based in Sri Lanka, has been part of a project in which the United Na­tions En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gram teams up with re­gional and in­ter­na­tional NGOs and the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment in an ef­fort to pro­tect the en­dan­gered species.

But if the dugong is to be pro­tected prop­erly a lot more needs to be learned about the an­i­mal, which is no­to­ri­ous for its reclu­sive­ness.

Among the main goals of the pro­gram, known as the Dugong and Sea­grass Con­ser­va­tion Project, is to map sea grass mead­ows, the sole habi­tat and source of food for the veg­e­tar­ian marine mam­mal that lives in the shal­low sea­wa­ter off the coast.

“The dugong sub­sists on sea grass — no sea grass, no dugong,” says Ra­ja­suriya, who has been in­volved in pro­tect­ing Sri Lanka’s coast for more than 30 years and yet, as­ton­ish­ingly, has never seen a live dugong in the re­gion.

“On the other hand, the ex­is­tence of large patches of sea grass meadow, es­pe­cially those with graz­ing signs, could be a strong in­di­ca­tor that there are dugongs around.

“With all the map­ping we have done and will do — scuba divers are sent to mea­sure the ex­tent and den­sity of the mead­ows — we are try­ing to set up a data­base which would then in­form our pro­tec­tion ef­forts.”

One cru­cial fac­tor be­hind the dra­matic de­crease of dugongs is the de­struc­tion of sea grass mead­ows, of­ten by bot­tom trawl­ing. An­other fac­tor is dy­na­mit­ing, an il­le­gal method of fishing. Typ­i­cally, with dugongs killed by dy­na­mit­ing blood spurts from their nose, in the kind of scene that so shocked Channa Su­raweera.

“Bot­tom trawl­ing is a fishing method whereby the fish­net is towed along the sea floor, dam­ag­ing ev­ery­thing along the way,” says Laks­man Peiris, deputy di­rec­tor of Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Depart­ment. “Ninety per­cent of dugong killed is killed by this net.

“Though not en­cour­aged, bot­tom trawl­ing is le­gal in Sri Lanka. The fish­er­men may not be aim­ing for the dugong, but a dugong caught ac­ci­den­tally by the fish­net has a slim chance of sur­vival. That’s be­cause dugong, be­ing a mam­mal, has to come to the sur­face of the wa­ter ev­ery six or seven min­utes to breathe. Be­ing caught by a net that lies at the bot­tom of the ocean, a dugong has no choice but to die a ter­ri­ble death.”

Su­raweera, who once ex­am­ined the body of a dugong killed by bot­tom trawl­ing, has an acute sense of what a ter­ri­ble death means. “Its lungs are filled with wa­ter. Can you imag­ine wa­ter seep­ing grad­u­ally into its lungs while the an­i­mal strug­gles des­per­ately but in vain?

“A fish­er­man, af­ter throw­ing his net into the ocean, only comes back ev­ery half or one hour to ex­am­ine his catch,” says Prasanna Weer­akkody, of the Oceans Re­search & Con-

Fish­er­men may not be aim­ing for the dugong, but a dugong caught ac­ci­den­tally by the fish­net has a slim chance of sur­vival.”

ser­va­tion As­so­ci­a­tion, a Cana­dian NGO with a Sri Lankan pres­ence which is also part of the dugong project.

“By that time the dugong may have al­ready died. Even if it’s not dead it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble for the fish­er­man to re­lease the dugong since that means cut­ting off the en­tire net and los­ing all the catch.”

Asked why the gov­ern­ment has not re­quired the fish­er­men to re­lease the dugong and then be com­pen­sated for their loss, Su­raweera says this is be­cause the dugong, once re­leased, will swim away. “You have to prove that you have in­deed caught a dugong.”

Mo­bile app

How­ever, this con­cern doesn’t seem like a big is­sue, bear­ing in mind that for the past few months the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Depart­ment has been pro­mot­ing a mo­bile app that en­ables users to take a pic­ture of a dugong wher­ever they see it and then re­port the sight­ing di­rectly to the depart­ment.

“The app can be down­loaded by any mo­bile us­ing the An­droid sys­tem,” Su­raweera says. “And we are ac­tu­ally giv­ing free mo­biles to fish­er­men op­er­at­ing within what we

be­lieve are dugong-ac­tive wa­ters. We also have four other cat­e­gories: dol­phin, whale, tur­tle and un­known. Ini­tially we planned to have a sep­a­rate cat­e­gory of il­le­gal fishing but later ve­toed the idea, since this may ring alarm bells for fish­er­men and alien­ate them.”

Weer­akkody warned that to achieve any suc­cess with the lo­cal com­mu­nity, sen­si­tiv­ity is of cru­cial im­por­tance.

“We’ve done re­search with the lo­cal fish­er­men com­mu­nity. Ev­ery time our re­search team goes into a vil­lage we pre­tend to be some­one else — a film crew, for ex­am­ple. And in the ini­tial pe­riod we will not show any in­ter­est in dugong — just get­ting to know the vil­lagers and


Con­ser­va­tion of­fi­cers with a Dugong found dead on a Sri Lankan beach.


Divers from Sri Lanka’s Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Depart­ment mea­sure sea grass.

Laks­man Peiris, deputy di­rec­tor of Sri Lanka’s Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Depart­ment


Prasanna Weer­akkody of the Ocean Re­search & Con­ser­va­tion As­so­ci­a­tion (mid­dle) demon­strates the drone.

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