A gi­ant strug­gling for sur­vival

Gen­tle Story by Philippa Loates

Island Life - - Contents -

The dugong (dugong du­gon) is an elu­sive marine species, sur­rounded by myths of mer­maids and sirens. Leg­end says that the Ark of the Covenant was pro­tected by dugongs and per­haps lonely sailors’ sight­ings of mer­maids were in fact dugongs. Dugongs are ac­tu­ally more closely re­lated to ele­phants than to other marine mam­mals such as whales and dol­phins. They can grow to up to three me­tres in length and 500kg in weight. Their young are nursed and re­main with their moth­ers for eigh­teen months, of­ten seen rid­ing on their moth­ers’ backs. Dugongs can live up to 70 years and dur­ing their lives they will swim hun­dreds of thou­sands of kilo­me­ters. Dugongs are the world’s only veg­e­tar­ian marine mam­mal and are largely re­liant on sea­grasses for food. Th­ese gen­tle gi­ants can eat up to 40 ki­los of sea­grass a day. The sea­grass habi­tat is there­fore also key to the species’ sur­vival. The dugong is on the verge of dis­ap­pear­ing from most of its range due to a broad spec­trum of di­rect and in­di­rect hu­man-re­lated in­flu­ences such as de­struc­tive fish­ing prac­tices, boat strikes, as well as threats to their habi­tats. Sea­grass ecosys­tems, un­der pres­sure from hu­man ac­tiv­ity, are crit­i­cal to the suc­cess of coastal fish­eries and play an im­por­tant role in re­duc­ing the ef­fects of cli­mate change. Sea­grass acts as a nurs­ery and home to thou­sands of ocean species and stores more car­bon than forests, mak­ing it among the most valu­able ecosys­tems on the planet - yet they are un­der in­creas­ing threat and ex­ist with min­i­mal en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion. As sea­grass mead­ows con­tinue to be de­stroyed by hu­man ac­tiv­ity at a rapid pace, the dugong comes un­der in­creas­ing threat. To­day the dugong is clas­si­fied by the IUCN Red List as a species vul­ner­a­ble to ex­tinc­tion. Al­though com­mer­cial hunt­ing of dugongs is now banned, the species may still be at risk from tra­di­tional hunt­ing and the de­struc­tion of sea­grass beds by hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties.

The­glob­al­dugongand­sea­grass­con­ser­va­tion Pro­ject

was es­tab­lished in Jan­uary 2015 by the Global En­vi­ron­ment Fa­cil­ity (GEF) with a view to ad­dress­ing th­ese threats to both sea­grass mead­ows and dugong pop­u­la­tions. The global pro­ject is made up of 40 projects car­ried out in part­ner­ship with 27 or­gan­i­sa­tions in eight of the dugong range states: In­done­sia, Mada­gas­car, Malaysia, Mozam­bique, Solomon Is­lands, Sri Lanka, Ti­mor Leste and Van­u­atu. The four year pro­ject will run from Jan­uary 2015 to De­cem­ber 2018, at a to­tal cost of US$5.8 mil­lion. It is ex­e­cuted by the Mo­hamed bin Zayed Species Con­ser­va­tion Fund, with fi­nanc­ing from the GEF, im­ple­men­ta­tion sup­port by UNEP and tech­ni­cal sup­port from the

CMS Dugong MOU Sec­re­tar­iat. The pro­ject op­er­ates un­der the premise that by pro­tect­ing sea­grass ecosys­tems, not only are dugongs pro­tected, but also a huge di­ver­sity of other species, in­clud­ing hu­mans and their com­mu­ni­ties which rely on sea­grass ecosys­tems and their as­so­ci­ated bio­di­ver­sity for sur­vival. The Global Dugong and Sea­grass Con­ser­va­tion Pro­ject works in lo­cal­i­ties through­out the In­dian and Pa­cific oceans to pro­tect dugong, sea­grass ecosys­tems, and coastal com­mu­ni­ties through dif­fer­ent con­ser­va­tion strate­gies. Th­ese strate­gies in­clude; pro­vid­ing al­ter­na­tive liveli­hoods and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment through ac­tiv­i­ties such as eco­tourism and aqua­cul­ture, sci­ence-based con­ser­va­tion such as sur­veys, mon­i­tor­ing, threat iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and mit­i­ga­tion, and con­ser­va­tion pol­icy de­vel­op­ment and education ac­tiv­i­ties to raise aware­ness of the im­por­tance of dugong and sea­grass con­ser­va­tion. Pro­fes­sor He­lene Marsh, the world’s lead­ing ex­pert on dugongs, from James Cook Univer­sity, Aus­tralia, who has stud­ied du- gongs for more than 30 years, com­ments: “The GEF Dugong and Sea­grass Pro­ject pro­vides an un­par­al­leled op­por­tu­nity to sup­port the threat­ened dugong and in­crease its chances of sur­vival. Dugongs are mostly found off­shore in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries and are of­ten worth more dead than alive be­cause poverty and food scarcity is a real is­sue. I am en­cour­aged to see such an im­por­tant in­vest­ment in rais­ing the pro­file of dugongs and sea­grass habi­tats within th­ese com­mu­ni­ties and look­ing at strength­en­ing con­ser­va­tion ef­forts.” T o en­sure sus­tained re­sults, the pro­ject has a strong fo­cus on com­mu­nity-based con­ser­va­tion ef­forts, em­pha­siz­ing the need for en­gaged and ac­tive com­mu­nity par­tic­i­pa­tion in a range of ini­tia­tives. For ex­am­ple, in Ti­mor Leste and the Solomon Is­lands the first ‘Lo­cally Man­aged Marine Ar­eas’ will be es­tab­lished, en­cour­ag­ing fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties to con­serve nat­u­ral re­sources and to man­age the ecosys­tem their in­come de­pends upon re­spon­si­bly. The con­ser­va­tion sta­tus of sea­grass and dugong in Van­u­atu is largely un­known. To date only one sur­vey has been car­ried out to as­sess the sta­tus of dugong and this was in 1987. As part of the Global Dugong and Sea­grass Con­ser­va­tion Pro­ject, Van­u­atu will un­der­take a full-scale as­sess­ment of the health of both the dugong and its sea­grass habi­tat. This will be car­ried out by the Van­u­atu En­vi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence So­ci­ety (VESS) in part­ner­ship with the Van­u­atu Fish­eries Depart­ment and the Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion and Con­ser­va­tion. The pro­ject also aims to raise aware­ness among com­mu­ni­ties and en­cour­age the es­tab­lish­ment of Com­mu­nity Con­ser­va­tion Ar­eas in places found to be im­por­tant to dugong con­ser­va­tion. Let’s pro­tect th­ese ‘gen­tle gi­ants’ so we can en­joy their sight­ings in Van­u­atu for many years to come.

For more in­for­ma­tion please visit www.dugong­con­ser­va­tion.org

Philippa Loates is a com­mu­ni­ca­tion of­fi­cer for the CMS (Con­ser­va­tion and Man­age­ment of Dugongs, MOU).

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