Edited version published in Down to Earth:
Dugong, a marine mammal that has managed to maintain a low profile despite its body size and overall charisma is six to seven feet long, a curvaceous body and it resembles a mermaid from a fairy tale. The sole member of Sirenia family dugong spends most of its time in shallow seas where healthy sea grass meadows exist, often mingling and swimming in herds.
Unfortunately, today they are on the verge of local extinction across most of the Indo-Pacific regions. In India, dugongs were once abundant along the west and east coast and around both the island groups, but now they are sighted only around the Gulf of Kutch, Gulf of Mannar and the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. They became locally extinct from the Lakshadweep islands around 60 years ago.
However, despite its rarity — or perhaps because of it — something fascinating has been happening in areas where they currently occur. Throughout its range in the Indo-‐Pacific, dugongs have become a priority species for conservation. In the last couple of decades, the number of articles, peer reviewed publications; academic theses, posters and other educational material have increased. As odd as it may seem, the charisma and current critically endangered status of the animal is helping them survive better in their favourable habitat—seagrass meadows.
As researchers studying dugongs for the past few years, our efforts are rooted in the idea that if one wants to conserve the dugong, one needs secure and understand its habitat. With this in mind, we initiated a study in 2007 on the interaction between dugongs and its habitat: seagrass meadows in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. Sometimes we went months without a sighting animal, and sometime we used indirect evidence — feeding trails on seagrass, mortality records and stories from village elders and fishers — to deduce details of the dugong’s life.
In seven years of research we have sighted fifteen individual dugongs across the A & N archipelago. We found that dugongs are restricted to sheltered bays and channels with persistent seagrass meadows dominated by Halophila and Halodule sp. Within these locations, dugongs consistently avoid patchy meadows with low seagrass cover. We found that availability of suitable seagrass habitat is not a limiting factor for dugong presence, but entanglement in nets and direct hunting appears to have likely resulted in local extinction of dugongs from several locations in A & N islands. We also observed that fishing intensity and tourism has increased in the past decade and the islanders are using modern gears to catch fish, and fast boats for tourism; as a result at times dugongs get entangled in nets.
However, gradually, through hard work of many conservation organisations, local community institutions and continuous support from the forest department, the real successes are being seen. Local people are aware about dugongs and islanders are keen to protect the species. The Forest Department, with the help of local NGOs is conducting awareness campaigns for the conservation of species, and after obtaining status of the state animal of the islands; dugongs have become celebrities of the islands, so to speak. At the National level the dugong task force is being formed and it is a top priority under the Centrally Sponsored Scheme, Species Recovery Programme. Under this programme the Andaman and Nicobar forest department in collaboration with Nature Conservation Foundation have studied interactions between seagrass and its habitat. During the second phase of the project, the forest department will actively monitor the habitat of dugong and enforce anti-‐poaching regulations. The Tamil Nadu and Gujarat states plan to follow the footsteps of A & N islands.
At the same time, international conservation organisations are finding ways to cooperate across national borders. United Nations Environment Programme has signed a memorandum of understanding with countries where dugongs are known to occur. India is now a signatory on the convention of Migratory Species. Recent meetings among nations have led to proposals for sharing data, coordinating research and creating a protected area for dugongs. Plans of special dugong task force are in pipeline, and at state level, meetings are conducted across the dugong range states to make important decisions at policy level for protecting the species.
Even then, huge challenges still exist. The pressure from the fishing community, accidental mortality in fishing nets, the propellers of high-‐speed boats are few amongst many. A major bottom‐up approach, a community‐based conservation program is yet to see the light of the day. Further the areas where dugongs are found will always be physically isolated and difficult to reach. Poverty amongst local fishermen remains a significant problem that can slow or even impede change.
But one thing is clear: changes are deeper than shallow seagrass meadows and interestingly the endangered status of the dugongs seems to be leading the way forward.