Our love, passion, appreciation and realization of the importance of our surrounding environment and wildlife have resulted in actions to safeguard our environment. We often take it for granted that, the Forest Department and NGO’s, albeit inefficient, are protecting our Forest and wildlife. However, the grittier reality is that the wildlife protection is a complicated issue and a number of factors are involved in conserving wildlife, including support and help from the local communities. Such is the case with conserving the State Animal of our islands—the dugongs (Sea Cows).
Dugongs are the only herbivorous mammals that are strictly marine, and the only surviving species in the family Dugongidae. They feed exclusively on sea grass and play a role of kin gardener of sea grass meadows. Unlike many other marine animals, dugongs live up to 70 years and much like humans, reach sexual maturity between 10 and 17 years. A female gives birth to a single calf every 5-7 years and the young ones depend on the mother for a year and a half, which means that the population growth is very low, making it difficult to re-establish or propagate when the population dips to extremely low levels.
Their other cousins are the manatee and the Stellar’ sea cow. A few individuals of the Manatees still inhabit the south-eastern coast of the United States, South America and tropical West Africa. However, Steller’s sea cow was hunted to extinction just twenty-seven years after its discovery in the 18th Century.
Today, dugongs are on the verge of extinction across most of the Indo-Pacific regions. In India, the present distribution of dugongs is restricted along the Gulf of Kutch, the west coast, Gulf of Mannar, the Palk Bay region, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In the Lakshadweep waters, dugongs were driven to local extinction around 60 years ago.
In Andaman and Nicobar islands, a popular belief is that dugongs are found only along “Dugong Creek” in the Little Andaman Island. Our research findings tell us that although few in number, they are reported from other parts such as the Ritchies archipelago (Neil and Havelock group of islands), South Andaman (along Tarmugli, Jollybuoy and Rutland islands), North and middle Andaman (along White-Cliff, Reef, Landfall islands and Mayabundar region), in Hutbay and along the central group of Nicobar Islands.
In our waters, they are unflatteringly referred to as sea-pigs or pani-suwar (thawtee). The name probably arising from their portliness (body size/ structure) may not sound very pleasant, but these animals possess this feature for their survival. The thickest part of their body is the back, where most of the blubber is deposited. Dugongs protect themselves from predators, such as sharks, by simply turning their backs on them.
They may be able to flee from sharks in the water, but their sluggish behaviour makes them easily vulnerable to poachers’ traps. Being mammals, dugongs breathe through lungs and need to surface every 5-6 minutes to breathe. When a dugong is caught in a net, the net traps them not allowing them the gulp of air that they need. Targeted hunting, entanglements in fishing nets and high-speed boat traffic has wreaked havoc to their population across.
Dugongs are listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the Indian Wildlife Protection Act has accorded them the highest level of legal protection under Schedule I. The Ministry of Environment and Forest, Government of India has launched the Dugong Species Recovery Program. However, the real question is whether such bans are effective tools at conserving species that are elusive?
There are about fifty dugongs that live in the Andaman and Nicobar region! The Forest Department and Nature Conservation Foundation in collaboration with the Andaman and Nicobar Environment team are attempting to conserve these animals. Identifying the habitats of this elusive species and creating awareness amongst local people like the fishermen, boat owners and others to reduce poaching-related threats is the first step towards conserving these docile sea mammals.
Dugong hunting practices continues to exist to date and their habitats are continuously degrading. It’s a great privilege and a matter of pride that such elusive charismatic species choose the waters around our archipelago as their habitat. It’s not the Forest Department and the NGO’s who will and can protect dugongs, but it’s us who can take the pride in conserving dugongs and if not for any other reason then simply for the beauty, rarity and for our children to see what truly belonged to the islands.
Edited version published in the Andaman Chronicle.