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.
The Global Dugong and Seagrass Conservation 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 dugongs 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.”
To 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
Story by Philippa Loates. Philippa Loates is a communication officer for the CMS (Conservation and Management of Dugongs, MoU).
ISLAND LIFE MAGAZINE