A case for con­ser­va­tion

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Ecowatch -

THE case of Si Te­nang the baby dugong cap­tured na­tional at­ten­tion in 1999.

Atan Hussin (Pak Atan), a fish­er­man in south­ern Jo­hor, had ac­ci­den­tally caught a baby dugong in his net. Find­ing that it had been bruised, he de­cided to take care of it at his ke­long (a float­ing raft house with nets). He and his fam­ily grew fonder of this baby marine mam­mal and named it Si Te­nang.

How­ever, within two weeks, the au­thor­i­ties asked him to re­lease the dugong into the wild. Pak Atan did so, but he kept look­ing out for Si Te­nang, hop­ing that it would come back to visit him.

But within 48 hours, he was heart­bro­ken when Si Te­nang was found dead after it had been tan­gled up in other nets (dugongs are mam­mals that need to reg­u­larly sur­face to breathe).

The public should know that dugongs are fac­ing many threats that may lead to their ex­tinc­tion, un­der­lined Dr Leela Ra­ja­mani, a dugong spe­cial­ist from Universiti Sains Malaysia.

In Jo­hor, the main prob­lems are rapid coastal de­vel­op­ment, ac­ci­den­tal en­tan­gle­ment in nets, boat col­li­sions, and de­struc­tive fish­ing meth­ods (such as trawl­ing and rawai long­lines full of hooks). In Sabah, Leela said there is the added prob­lem of fish bomb­ing.

Sea­grass spe­cial­ist Dr Jil­lian Ooi of Universiti Malaya said the dugong is listed as “vul­ner­a­ble” on the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species. This means that cer­tain dugong pop­u­la­tions are greatly re­duced in size, hurt by hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties, and in dan­ger of lo­cal ex­tinc­tion.

On April 21, a dugong was found dead at Pu­lau Tinggi near Mers­ing.

“The Fish­eries De­part­ment thinks it was prob­a­bly caught in a long­line or rawai be­cause there were hook scars on it,” said Ooi.

Rawai are float­ing death traps which can stretch for hundreds of me­tres and have up to 2,000 hooks.

“This type of fish­ing gear needs to be pro­hib­ited be­cause they are so dan­ger­ous to marine life. The worst da­m­age oc­curs when the long­line breaks off and floats around in the sea, cru­elly hook­ing any­thing that lies in its path, in­clud­ing tur­tles, sharks and dugongs.”

Leela ex­plained that dugong con­ser­va­tion in Malaysia took off after the Si Te­nang in­ci­dent.

“The Gov­ern­ment al­lo­cated funds for re­search on th­ese crea­tures and on sea­grass. Ex­per­tise de­vel­op­ment was also one of the pri­or­i­ties. I ben­e­fited from this with an am­ple re­search grant and PhD schol­ar­ship. The De­part­ment of Fish­eries has also drafted a dugong man­age­ment plan.”

But she noted that much more needs to be done. For starters, more re­search is needed on sea­grass, since this is the main source of food for dugongs.

“Sea­grass has not been prop­erly mapped out ex­cept in small ar­eas of Sabah and the eastern is­lands of Jo­hor. So there is a lack of in­for­ma­tion for a proper dugong con­ser­va­tion plan.”

She added that is­sues re­main with the en­force­ment of ex­ist­ing leg­is­la­tion, for in­stance, not al­low­ing trawlers to come closer than five nau­ti­cal miles to marine parks.

“Dugongs are a charis­matic, flag­ship species. They act as an um­brella species to con­serve other species in the habi­tat where they live.”

She stressed the need for ed­u­ca­tion pro­grammes about dugongs tar­geted at dif­fer­ent au­di­ences such as cor­po­ra­tions, ru­ral peo­ple (who live close to dugongs) and city folk.

“I hope that more Malaysians will de­velop a sense of pride and com­pas­sion to­wards th­ese gen­tle crea­tures.” – An­drew Sia

— Filepic

Pak Atan (right) and his fam­ily mem­bers could not hold back their tears as they held the dead body of Si Te­nang, the baby dugong, back in 1999.

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