Battle to Save the Dugongs

Article excerpt

Dugongs mean everything to Dirk Fahrenbach. He makes a living from taking people to snorkel or dive among dugongs, he married the marine biologist he met during research on dugongs--and he thinks of these most gentle of sea-cows every time he calls his daughter, Serina, the scientific namesake of dugongs. "I hope that my daughter's children will still be able to see them, but sadly I think they will become extinct one day," Dirk says. "My only hope is that we can save them here and increase their numbers--there's always a chance."

Dirk, owner of the Dugong Dive Centre, is talking about a ten-year dugong protection program that he manages in partnership with Club Paradise, an upscale eco-resort where his dive center is based. Club Paradise is set in Dimakya Island, a private island in Maricaban Bay at the remote northwestern coast of Basuanga Island, one of the islands in Palawan province in the south of the Philippines. The bay is home to nineteen dugongs, believed to be the largest flock in the Philippines.

At the beginning of the program, in 1997, the research was financed by WWF, Toba Aquarium (Japan), and Club Paradise, and led by Janet Uri--now Dirk's wife. The spin-off to Club Paradise is obvious--dugong-watching tours are a key selling point--and the resort now enforces a fishing ban; two guards armed with M16 combat rifles keep watch round the clock, ready to apprehend or chase off any fishing boat that ventures into the bay. "The ban on fishing applies only for commercial boats," Dirk explains. "The local fishermen are allowed to fish using hooks and small nets."

It is relatively easy for Club Paradise to protect Maricaban Bay. It is remote and virtually unpopulated, ringed by a sweep of empty rotund hills on the landward side and defined by a scattering of tiny isles at the seaward perimeter of the bay, and inhabited only by a few dozen poor fishermen who live in bamboo huts in Maricaban village. "We only found one dead dugong in ten years; it was a juvenile and we couldn't figure out why it died despite a post-mortem examination," says Dirk. Yet the herd of dugongs at Maricaban Bay has remained constant, at 19, despite ten years of total protection. "This year we might be lucky," Dirk says, "as we have four new babies. In all previous years we just had two babies."

The recovery of dugongs, even in pristine and protected places like Maricaban Bay, is frustratingly slow given the low reproduction rate--females bear their first young at around the age of eight years, and then they have about one sibling every decade, a maximum of six offspring in a lifetime. The animals' life cycle itself is in slow mode. Herbivorous sea mammals, dugongs consume 25-30kg of sea-grass daily, tearing out the grass in long swoops from sandy sea-beds at a depth of 3'9 meters. They grow slowly to a massive 400-500kg, larger than cows. These docile giants spend much of their day eating, their voracious feeding interrupted only by their need for air. They must surface every four or five minutes for gulps of air.

All of this--a large conspicuous animal, the need to surface frequently, and a docile demeanor--makes them easy prey for fishermen, who spear them as they surface, selling their much-sought pork-like meat for 90P per kilo (US$1.70). Another risk for dugongs is entanglement in fishermen's nets, where they suffocate. Yet the largest long-term threat to their survival is habitat destruction: the pollution and sedimentation that denudes the beds of sea-grass.

The decline of dugongs has been rapid. They were common all over the Philippines until a generation or two ago; now they are present in less than a half-dozen localities, with the largest concentration in Palawan. There the population is estimated at around 250. The story in other parts of Asia, and beyond, largely follows the same pattern of decline. The only stable populations are in the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf, as well as in Australia, which is now their last worldwide stronghold. …