Friday, September 4, 2015

Saving our dugongs

A conservation project to protect the dugongs from a high risk of extinction in the future will commence in September 2015 with the support of a group of environmental organizations, despite the fact that not many people know what a dugong is or why the species needs to be protected.


By Risidra Mendis Ceylon Today Features
A conservation project to protect the dugongs from a high risk of extinction in the future will commence in September 2015 with the support of a group of environmental organizations, despite the fact that not many people know what a dugong is or why the species needs to be protected.
The dugong is a large marine mammal found in various coastal regions throughout the warm waters of the Indo-Pacific Ocean, between the Red Sea in the west and Australia in the east. The largest dugong population in South Asia is in the Gulf of Mannar, the waterway between Sri Lanka and India. Dugongs inhabit Sri Lanka's Northwest coast, including Kalpitiya, the Bar Reef Sanctuary, and the Puttlam Lagoon; areas of abundant seagrass and mangrove forests.

"The dugong is a primarily herbivorous bottom feeder, dependent on plants from the sea floors of shallow coastal areas for subsistence. When seagrass is scarce, the dugong will supplement its diet with algae, sea squirts, shellfish, and jellyfish. Due to the dugong's dependency on foods located in shallow oceanic areas such as bays, mangroves, and channels, the locales that are viable for dugong habitation are restricted to a handful of coastal areas of the Indo-Pacific Ocean," Chairman Sri Lanka Turtle Conservation Project Thushan Kapurusinghe said.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies dugongs as "Vulnerable to Extinction" under the Red List of Threatened Species. But even though the dugong is classified as a 'vulnerable' species, studies on the population trends of dugongs have been minimal and have mostly taken place in Queensland and Australia. A worldwide study in 2002 of dugong populations has declared significant depletions and possibilities of extinctions in one-third of the current dugong habitats.
"But despite this coastline's once plentiful dugong inhabitants, the past thirty years have seen the dugong populations become dramatically depleted. The dugong's disappearance from Sri Lankan waters is probable should current conditions continue. A high quantity of dugongs once inhabited Sri Lankan waters and for decades, dugongs were hunted for their meat, oil, and hides and dugong meat was popular among the coastal communities because it was believed to have aphrodisiac properties. In the 1950s, up to 150 dugongs were fished in the Mannar Gulf. Dugong fishing was legal at the time. But after the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) Amendment in 1970 the dugongs were given protection. But this act of legislation could not prevent the continual decline in dugong sightings that followed the decades of fishing. Today, dugongs continue to be victims of accidental catch from unsustainable fishing methods. Due to dynamite fishing in the seas off Mannar two rare dugongs a male and a female of around 20 to 30 years old were killed in December 2010 and their carcasses found by the Sri Lanka Navy. The weight of the female was about 545 kilos and the male 480 kilos," Kapurusinghe explained.

Human activity greatly impacts dugongs due to the reliance of dugongs on coastal ecosystems. "Increasing shore fisheries and their fishing methods, such as gill nets and trawl nets lead to incidental capture and entanglement of dugongs in the nets.
Saving our...
Dugongs are unable to stay underwater for extended periods of time, so are highly vulnerable to death by entanglement. Modern farming practices, oil spills, and land clearing have also led to the degradation or loss of coastal ecosystems and the subsistence these ecosystems provide for the dugong," Kapurusinghe said.
The dugong's slow rate of reproduction, long gestation period, and small litters that usually consist of one calf has also contributed towards the decline in the species population. Research conducted on the dugong by D.M.S.S. Karunarathna, M.A.J.S. Navaratne, W.P.N. Perera and V.A.P. Samarawickrama has revealed that the gestation period of the species is estimated to be about 12-14 months. The Dugong looks like a rotund dolphin without a dorsal fin. The head is distinctive with the mouth opening ventrally below a broad flat muzzle covered sparsely with short stout hairs that are most developed around the mouth.

"The occurrence of the Dugong in Sri Lanka's waters appears in the literature in the late 19th century, at which time it seems to have been rare. Given that the dugong's capacity to move across jurisdictional boundaries and coordinating management initiatives across these boundaries is crucial to its long-term survival the species is at risk of being wiped out. We interviewed 78 fishermen (32 fisheries societies in 21 fisheries villages) engaged in near-shore fishing activities in the Kalpitiya and Puttalam areas. Their frequency of Dugong observations averaged once in every 100 fishing trips, indicating a low chance of encountering Dugongs in this area. According to fishermen in this area, a small resident population is known to exist in just two remaining areas, Kalpitiya and Uchchamunei lagoon areas but did not provide the exact dates of these observations. There is an accepted fact that the Muslim community in the area does not like to catch and eat Dugongs for religious reasons," Kapurusinghe explained.
The research reveals that prior to the mid 1980's Dugongs were both abundant and widely distributed along the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka, although no numbers are available regarding the abundance. At this time they were actively hunted in the Puttalam area using gillnets. "In some areas Dugongs are referred to as 'Caddadt pandri' (sea pigs) in Tamil. An island near Kalpitiya is called 'Pandipitiya' (pig island) most probably referring to Dugong island. Dugongs are also known as sea cows," Kapurusinghe said.

On January 31, 2012, Sri Lanka signed the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs and Their Habitats throughout their Range (Dugong MOU), which operates under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). The MOU is a pledge to support the long-term survival of dugongs and the protection of their habitats.
The Sri Lanka Turtle Conservation Project, Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) IUCN Sri Lanka, National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARRDA), Ocean Resources Conservation Association (ORCA) and the Biodiversity Education And Research (BEAR) will initiate the Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project where national and international conservation efforts will be used to protect the species and their seagrass habitats across the Indian and Pacific Ocean basins.

"A systematic research on this threatened marine mammal should be initiated, to document its current distribution in the area, habitat status, breeding and migration patterns. The local fishermen should be involved in a community based monitoring programme to document observations related to the Dugong, including records on by catch. Priority attention should be placed to document the small resident population of Dugongs in this area, as informed by the fishermen. The National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) Station in Kalpitiya could play a lead role in monitoring programs, together with the DWLC. A well-planned and targeted program has to be carried out among local communities on the need to conserve the Dugong, and other marine mammals and reptiles such as the turtles, sea snakes and coral reef fish in the area. The programme should be targeted at discouraging local communities from consuming Dugong meat. The Central Environmental Authority (CEA), the DWLC, Ministry of Education, Educational Publication Department, and environmental related NGO's should play the most important role in environmental, education and awareness programmes," Kapurusinghe said.

He added that there is tremendous potential to declare a marine and coastal Ramsar site (an internationally important wetland) in this area, which would enable the relevant authorities to conserve the habitats of not only the Dugong, but several other marine animals inhabiting this region and that the naval base in Kalpitiya could play a vital role in the conservation of Dugongs in this area. "We believe that the lagoon areas are very important but they need to be planned and managed in such a way that they balance the needs to protect the marine environment whilst promoting poverty alleviation, integrated livelihoods and a human rights approach to development along the Puttalam Lagoon," Kapurusinghe said. Saving our...
Dugongs are unable to stay underwater for extended periods of time, so are highly vulnerable to death by entanglement. Modern farming practices, oil spills, and land clearing have also led to the degradation or loss of coastal ecosystems and the subsistence these ecosystems provide for the dugong," Kapurusinghe said.

The dugong's slow rate of reproduction, long gestation period, and small litters that usually consist of one calf has also contributed towards the decline in the species population. Research conducted on the dugong by D.M.S.S. Karunarathna, M.A.J.S. Navaratne, W.P.N. Perera and V.A.P. Samarawickrama has revealed that the gestation period of the species is estimated to be about 12-14 months. The dugong looks like a rotund dolphin without a dorsal fin. The head is distinctive with the mouth opening ventrally below a broad flat muzzle covered sparsely with short stout hairs that are most developed around the mouth.

"The occurrence of the dugong in Sri Lanka's waters appears in the literature of the late 19th century, at which time it seems to have been rare. Given that the dugong's capacity to move across jurisdictional boundaries and coordinating management initiatives across these boundaries is crucial to its long-term survival the species is at risk of being wiped out. We interviewed 78 fishermen (32 fisheries societies in 21 fisheries villages) engaged in near-shore fishing activities in the Kalpitiya and Puttalam areas. Their frequency of dugong observations averaged once in every 100 fishing trips, indicating a low chance of encountering dugongs in this area. According to fishermen in this area, a small resident population is known to exist in just two remaining areas: Kalpitiya and Uchchamunei lagoon areas but did not provide the exact dates of these observations. There is an accepted fact that the Muslim community in the area does not like to catch and eat Dugongs for religious reasons," Kapurusinghe explained.
The research reveals that prior to the mid 1980's dugongs were both abundant and widely distributed along the Northwestern coast of Sri Lanka, although no numbers are available regarding the abundance. At this time they were actively hunted in the Puttalam area using gillnets. "In some areas dugongs are referred to as 'caddadt pandri' (sea pigs) in Tamil. An island near Kalpitiya is called 'Pandipitiya' (pig island) most probably referring to Dugong Island. Dugongs are also known as sea cows," Kapurusinghe said.

On January 31, 2012, Sri Lanka signed the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs and Their Habitats throughout their Range (Dugong MOU), which operates under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). The MOU is a pledge to support the long-term survival of dugongs and the protection of their habitats.

The Sri Lanka Turtle Conservation Project, Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) IUCN Sri Lanka, National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARRDA), Ocean Resources Conservation Association (ORCA) and the Biodiversity Education And Research (BEAR) will initiate the Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project where national and international conservation efforts will be used to protect the species and their seagrass habitats across the Indian and Pacific Ocean basins.

"A systematic research on this threatened marine mammal should be initiated, to document its current distribution in the area, habitat status, breeding and migration patterns. The local fishermen should be involved in a community based monitoring programme to document observations related to the dugong, including records on by catch. Priority attention should be placed to document the small resident population of dugongs in this area, as informed by the fishermen. The National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) Station in Kalpitiya could play a lead role in monitoring programmes, together with the DWLC. A well-planned and targeted programme has to be carried out among local communities on the need to conserve the dugong, and other marine mammals and reptiles such as the turtles, sea snakes and coral reef fish in the area. The programme should be targeted at discouraging local communities from consuming Dugong meat. The Central Environmental Authority (CEA), the DWLC, Ministry of Education, Educational Publication Department, and environmental related NGO's should play the most important role in environmental, education and awareness programmes," Kapurusinghe said.

He added that there is tremendous potential to declare a marine and coastal Ramsar site (an internationally important wetland) in this area, which would enable the relevant authorities to conserve the habitats of not only the dugong, but several other marine animals inhabiting this region and that the naval base in Kalpitiya could play a vital role in the conservation of dugongs in this area. "We believe that the lagoon areas are very important but they need to be planned and managed in such a way that they balance the needs to protect the marine environment whilst promoting poverty alleviation, integrated livelihoods and a human rights approach to development along the Puttalam Lagoon," Kapurusinghe said.