Saving the mysterious sea cows



Known locally as “dugong” (Dugong dugon), this sea cow is a large, charismatic and gentle creature of the sea that is rarely seen nowadays in coastal and marine areas where they used to thrive.

Shy as it is, very little is known about this very elusive marine mammal—its population and distribution, how and where it breeds or congregates, or where and how it raise its young.

Fortunately, as a species, dugong is surviving the numerous human-induced threats, unlike its cousin, the Steller’s sea cow that lived off the coast of western North America, which became extinct in the 18th century mainly due to hunting.

Dugong is one of four living species of the Order Sirenia, which includes three species of manatees—the Amazonian, the West Indian and the West African manatees. It is the only living representative of the once-diverse Family Dugongidae.

Dugong life cycle

Known to live up to 70 years old, it takes about four years to 17 years for this marine herbivores to become sexually mature.

By feeding on seagrass, an adult dugong can weigh from 250 kilograms to 900 kg. It is not surprising because scientists say its closest land mammal relative is the elephant and not cows. It got the name sea cow only because it feeds on seagrass.

A dugong’s gestation period takes about 13 to 15 months, which means it can only reproduce once every three years, or up to 7 years, and it can only produce one offspring at a time.

A mama dugong should nurture until the baby dugong can fend for itself by eating seagrass 14 months to 18 months after birth.

Population decline

Known to occur in 37 countries in the Indo-Pacific region, the global population of sea cows is on the decline. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species lists dugong as vulnerable.

In the Philippines, the dugong is critically endangered, a conservation status that means the species is just a step shy from being declared extinct.

Yet, despite its conservation status, still very little is known about the dugong and its way of life. Perhaps this is the reason why its population continues to drop.

There are five priority sites for dugong conservation in the Philippines—Calauit Island in Busuanga and Green Island Bay (which has ongoing conservation initiatives), both in Palawan province; the Malita and Davao del Sur area; Sarangani Bay; and the Sulu Archipelago.

Saving the dugongs

In the Philippines, at least one group, the Community-Centered Conservation-Philippines (C3PH), is working closely with the communities to save the species from extinction.

In his online presentation during the World Wildlife Day celebration organized by the Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) on March 4, Reynante V. Ramilo, programme coordinator of C3PH, said conserving the critically endangered dugong in the Philippines has always been a major challenge.

“The decline of the species and escalating threats led to its classification as critically endangered,” he said.

Human-induced threats

Ramilo said the extinction of dugong can be easily blamed on a number of human-induced threats—such as fishery by-catch, direct hunting, rapid coastal development and habitat degradation.

“Sometimes, fishermen are forced to sacrifice their [dugong] lives even though they know it is illegal to hurt or kill dugongs because they want to save their fishnets more than the dugongs,” Ramilo said in a telephone interview on April 19.

As part of the C3PH’s conservation measure to save dugongs caught in fishnets, Ramilo said they are offering to pay the fishermen the cost of the fishnets to save the life of the poor dugong.

“Just last year, we encountered two incidents wherein we paid the fishermen the cost of the fishnet and we were able to save the lives of the dugongs,” he recalled.

Protected mammal

DENR Administrative Order 55 of 1991 declared the dugong as a Protected Marine Mammal of the Philippines.

This means that hurting, hunting, killing, trading, or even possession of dugong, dead or alive, is punishable by law.

The declaration gives it unique importance as a species, perhaps equal to that of other iconic animals like the Philippine eagle, which is protected by Republic Act 6147, which declared it as a Protected Bird in the Philippines.

At the same time, the Philippine tamaraw is protected by Commonwealth Act 73 that prohibits the killing, hunting, wounding or taking away of the tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis), that was approved on October 23, 1936.

Important ecosystem function

In his presentation, Ramilo said dugong’s importance to fisheries and marine biodiversity cannot be overemphasized.

A member of the IUCN-Sirenia Specialist Group, Ramilo said dugongs help stabilize sediments, filter large quantities of nutrients and play an important role in the marine ecosystem.

“The dugong that lives in these seagrass ecosystems are excellent barometers indicative of the overall health of the ecosystem,” Ramilo said in a mix of Filipino and English.

He said the dugong’s constant browsing of seagrass encourages regrowth, ensuring critical habitat and feeding sites for a host of other marine species, including turtles, dolphins and sawfish.

Elusive

While it is widely known that they inhabit and can only be found among seagrass, actually “finding” them is easier said than done.

Take it from scuba diver and explorer Gregg Yan. “It took me decades to see a wild dugong,” he recalled.

“Sizeable herds of dugongs once plied the Philippine archipelago until hunting and habitat loss greatly reduced their numbers. Some herds are still holding out in Isabela, Mindanao, Guimaras and Palawan, but encounters are extremely rare,” Yan told the BusinessMirror via Messenger on April 19.

He explained that encountering a dugong is unlike seeing a whale, “which steals your breath away because of sheer size, nor a shark that inspires just a primeval bit of fear.”

“Dugongs are huge but cute and friendly, just like a mermaid Hodor,” he said.

Tourist magnet

While they are indeed elusive and hard to find, on Calauit Island, “dugong hunt” is being offered as part of the diving experience to tourists.

Danny Ocampo, ocean conservation advocate, master scuba diver, and photography expert, told the BusinessMirror via Messenger that because finding sea cows is not easy, a local Tagbanua tour guide will give the chances of finding them a big boost.

However, observing and interacting with dugongs require permission from the Tagbanuas that protect them, he pointed out.

Raising awareness

Ocampo said ecotourism can help raise awareness about wildlife.

“With that awareness, it can help people to care for them,” he said when sought for a comment last April 19.

“Ecotourism can also help raise needed funds for the management of protected areas/habitats to ensure that endangered wildlife, such as dugongs, can thrive and recover from population decline,” he added.

According to Ocampo, interaction guidelines were already set for dugong and other wildlife tourism. It limits the number of people interacting with them at a given time or the amount of time they are exposed to tourists, which can be stressful to them or alter their behavior.

“These [guidelines] should be strictly followed and regular studies should be conducted to assess if these measures are enough,” he said.

Way forward

According to Ramilo, C3PH will continue to work with communities and local government units in Palawan with the goal of establishing a network of dugong conservation sites in Palawan.

C3PH intends to push for the development and implementation of the Dugong Conservation Area Management Plan in coordination with concerned government agencies, and work with the DENR and the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) for the declaration of certain areas as Critical Habitat for Dugong.

“We want to promote participatory research and monitoring with the communities and the practice of citizen science,” he said.

Hopefully, he said, between 2022 to 2025, C3PH will be able to replicate dugong conservation in Calauit Island in eight or more other critical sites across Palawan.

Image credits: Danny Ocampo



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