Mer­maid re­turns

Dugongs stage a re­vival around An­daman and Ni­co­bar is­lands


IT IS SIX to seven feet long, has a cur­va­ceous body and when it sits by the sea feed­ing its young, it re­sem­bles a mer­maid from a fairy tale.For long, the du­gong kept a low pro­file. The mer­maid-shaped creature is the sole mem­ber of its fam­ily and spends most of its time in shal­low seas where healthy sea grass mead­ows ex­ist, of­ten min­gling and swimming in herds.

Un­for­tu­nately, to­day this beau­ti­ful creature is on the verge of ex­tinc­tion across most of the Indo-Pa­cific re­gion.

In In­dia, dugongs were once abun­dant along the west and east coast and around its two is­land groups. But now they are sighted only around the Gulf of Kutch, Gulf of Man­nar and the An­daman and Ni­co­bar ar- chipelago. They dis­ap­peared from the Lak­shad­weep is­lands around 60 years ago.

Its rar­ity not­with­stand­ing—or per­haps be­cause of it—some­thing fas­ci­nat­ing has been hap­pen­ing in ar­eas where they cur­rently oc­cur. Through­out its range in the In­doPa­cific, dugongs have be­come a pri­or­ity species for con­ser­va­tion in re­cent times.

In the past cou­ple of decades,the num­ber of ar­ti­cles, peer-re­viewed pub­li­ca­tions, aca­demic the­ses, posters and other ed­u­ca­tional ma­te­rial on the dugongs have in­creased.Odd as it may seem,the charisma and cur­rent crit­i­cally en­dan­gered sta­tus of the an­i­mal are help­ing the du­gong sur­vive bet­ter in its favoured habi­tat—sea­grass mead­ows.

The first ma­jor con­ser­va­tion im­pe­tus

came more than two decades ago. In 1992, the Union Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment and Forests amended the sta­tus of the du­gong, giv­ing the marine an­i­mal le­gal pro­tec­tion un­der the Wildlife (Pro­tec­tion) Act. The min­istry also di­rected the Zo­o­log­i­cal Survey of In­dia to study the sta­tus and dis­tri­bu­tion of dugongs in the Gulf of Man­nar and Palk Bay. Sci­en­tists from the in­sti­tute chalked out a method­ol­ogy for sur­vey­ing dugongs, in­clud­ing aerial sur­veys. How­ever, dur­ing the two-year study, the sci­en­tists could not sight a sin­gle liv­ing du­gong. The ini­tial en­thu­si­asm whit­tled away, when the sci­en­tists re­ceived lit­tle po­lit­i­cal and fi­nan­cial support for the sur­veys.

As re­searchers study­ing dugongs for the past few years, our ef­forts are rooted in the idea that if one wants to con­serve the du­gong, one needs to un­der­stand its habi­tat. With this in mind, we at the Na­ture Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion (ncf ) ini­ti­ated a study in 2007 on the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween dugongs and its habi­tat: sea­grass mead­ows in the An­daman and Ni­co­bar ar­chi­pel­ago. At times, we went months with­out a sin­gle sight­ing of the an­i­mal, and some­time we used in­di­rect ev­i­dence—feed­ing trails on sea­grass, mor­tal­ity records and sto­ries from vil­lage el­ders and fish­ers—to de­duce de­tails of the du­gong’s life.

In seven years, we sighted 15 in­di­vid­ual dugongs across the An­daman and Ni­co­bar ar­chi­pel­ago. We found that dugongs are re­stricted to shel­tered bays and chan­nels with per­sis­tent sea­grass mead­ows dom­i­nated by Halophila and Halo­d­ule gen­era.

In th­ese lo­ca­tions, dugongs con­sis­tently avoid patchy mead­ows with low sea­grass cover. But on fur­ther prob­ing, we found some­thing more dan­ger­ous than habi­tat de­struc­tion. We ob­served that a tourism boom in the past decade and a re­sul­tant in­crease in fish­ing are ad­versely af­fect­ing du­gong. We found the du­gong was get­ting en­tan­gled in the mod­ern nets used by the is­landers to catch fish. Di­rect hunt­ing also ap­pears to have led to the ex­tinc­tion of dugongs from sev­eral lo­ca­tions in the An­daman and Ni­co­bar Is­lands.

How­ever, the hard work of many con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tions, lo­cal com­muni- ty in­sti­tu­tions and con­tin­u­ous support from the for­est depart­ment means that lo­cal peo­ple are aware of dugongs and is­landers are keen to pro­tect the species. The An­daman and Ni­co­bar for­est depart­ment, with the help of lo­cal ngos, is con­duct­ing aware­ness cam­paigns for the con­ser­va­tion of the species.In 2002,the du­gong was de­clared the state an­i­mal of the An­daman and Ni­co­bar Is­lands. This and other con­ser­va­tion ef­forts cat­a­pulted dugongs to celebrity sta­tus in is­lands.At the na­tional level, the du­gong task force was con­sti­tuted in 2008 and the an­i­mal is now top pri­or­ity un­der the Cen­trallyspon­sored Species Re­cov­ery Pro­gramme. Un­der this pro­gramme, the for­est depart­ment, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Na­ture Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion, stud­ied in­ter­ac­tions be­tween sea­grass and its habi­tat. Dur­ing the sec­ond phase of the project, the for­est depart­ment will ac­tively mon­i­tor the habi­tat of du­gong and en­force anti-poach­ing reg­u­la­tions. Tamil Nadu and Gu­jarat plan to follow in the foot­steps of An­daman and Ni­co­bar is­lands.

Even in­ter­na­tional con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tions are find­ing ways to co­op­er­ate across na­tional bor­ders. United Na­tions En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gramme has signed a mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing with coun­tries where dugongs are known to oc­cur. In­dia is now a sig­na­tory to the Con­ven­tion on the Con­ser­va­tion of Mi­gra­tory Species. Re­cent meet­ings among na­tions have led to pro­pos­als for shar­ing data, co­or­di­nat­ing re­search and cre­at­ing a pro­tected area for dugongs. Plans of spe­cial du­gong task force are in pipe­line.

Even then, there are huge chal­lenges.The pres­sure from the fish­ing com­mu­nity, ac­ci­den­tal mor­tal­ity in fish­ing nets, the pro­pel­lers of high‐speed boats are a few. A ma­jor bot­tom‐up ap­proach, a com­mu­nity‐based con­ser­va­tion pro­gramme is yet to see the light of day. More sig­nif­i­cantly, the ar­eas where dugongs are found will al­ways be iso­lated and dif­fi­cult to reach. Poverty amongst lo­cal fish­er­men re­mains a sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem that can slow or even im­pede change.

But one thing is clear: the en­dan­gered sta­tus of the dugongs seems to be lead­ing the way for­ward.

Vard­han Patankar is a re­search scholar at the Na­ture Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion in Mysore

Crit­i­cally en­dan­gered sta­tus of du­gong (above) is help­ing it sur­vive bet­ter in its favoured habi­tat of sea­grass mead­ows (left)

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