Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
Photo courtesy of George Plaza
A day after Christmas, someone posted a picture of a dead dugong, which was found in Dahican Beach in Mati City, Davao Oriental. Based on body weight and status of teeth, the dead marine mammal was estimated to be between one to three months old.
As of the post, no cause of death has been reported yet. “Fresh carcass (less than 24 hours) scratches are shallow, indicating (it was) not the primary reason for the death,” the post stated.
Most likely, the dugong was separated from its mother, Amy Guanco Ponce surmised in her post. “Calf this young cannot survive without nursing from its mother, not only to feed but also to guide them to the surface to breathe,” she wrote.
Dahican Beach, where the dead dugong was found, is part of the Davao Gulf, an area of 308,000 hectares. It is surrounded by all four provinces in the Davao Region and six cities. Samal Island is the largest island located in the gulf, while Davao City, on the gulf’s west coast, has the largest and busiest port.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) considers Davao Gulf as one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world. Multifarious coral reefs, different mangrove species, cetaceans, and a host of invertebrates contribute to the natural diversity of the gulf.
Along the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Eco-region, Davao Gulf ranks as one of the priority areas in terms of conservation, according to WWF-Philippines Vice-Chair and CEO Lorenzo “Lory” Tan.
Davao Gulf, he said, is the second-most densely populated marine habitat in the Philippines, where the only remaining species of dugong and five of seven species of turtles can be found.
Unfortunately, the Davao Gulf is being threatened by the very economical activities it supports. “Environmental exploitation by humans is a consequence of growing poverty,” Tan deplored. “Fish yields have decreased, leading many to adopt destructive fishing methods in order to survive. Dugong populations have dwindled due to boat propeller accidents and fishnet-caused drowning.”
Dugong (known in the science world as Dugong dugon) is locally called “baboy-dagat” (pig of the sea). It is one of the only four living members of the obscure mammalian Sirenia or sea cows. Marine experts, however, claim dugong is more closely related to elephants than to other marine mammals such as dolphins and whales.
Like most marine mammals, the dugong is an endangered species. It is listed under such a category under the Endangered Species Act of the United States. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) classified it as “vulnerable to extinction” under the 2009 World Conservation Union Red List of Threatened Species.
The Dugong (Dugong dugon): Status Report and Action Plans for Countries and Territories in its Range reported that the slow-moving mammal “appear to have disappeared” or “already become extinct” in some places, particularly “the waters off Mauritius, the Seychelles, western Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Japan’s Sakishima Shoto Islands, Hong Kong’s Pearl River estuary, several islands in the Philippines including Zambales and Cebu, and parts of Cambodia and Vietnam.”
A report on dugongs made at the Third IUCN Conservation Congress held in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2004 stated that the dugong may have been present around almost all of the islands of the Philippines in the early 1900s.
There was a time that occurrences of dugongs have been reported in Isabela and Quezon provinces, southern Mindoro and Palawan, Guimaras Strait and Panay Gulf, northeastern Mindanao, and southern Mindanao including the Sulu Archipelago, Sarangani Bay and Pujada Bay.
In recent years, their population has dwindled considerably. “As of 1997, they have been confirmed in only a few places: Palawan, Romblon, Guimaras, and Pujada Bay, Davao Oriental (with only one specimen from the last three areas),” Ocean Ambassadors reports.
Since time immemorial, the dugong has been hunted throughout its traditional range for its meat, hide, oil and bones. In some parts of the country, there are still people who believe that parts of dugongs can be used for medical purposes or as amulets to protect against evil spirits.
The slow movement and inability to take long dives make dugongs easy prey for hunters. “Dugong tends to move relatively slowly, with an average swimming speed of 10 kilometers per hour, although it can double this speed if necessary,” a marine mammal expert says. “Unlike other marine mammals, it cannot hold its breath underwater for long periods of time, so dives last only from one to three minutes.”
Dugongs are also highly susceptible to being entangled in fishing nets or hit by boat propellers, which can lead to death or serious injury. “Most dugong deaths are a result of incidental catches in gill nets, use of dynamite fishing, trawling, baynets and fish corrals (locally known as baklad),” states dugongseagrass.org. “There have been more recent reports of dugongs being trapped by the ropes used by seaweed farms in Busuanga, Palawan.”
Dugongs have a slow reproduction rate. “Population growth is so slow that even without exploitation, in ideal conditions, the dugong population can only grow by as much as 5% a year,” Ocean Ambassadors claims.
“Adults become sexually active when they are at least nine years old, and female give birth to calves only once every 3-7 years,” Ocean Ambassadors says on its website, oneocean.org. “Thirteen months after mating, a single calf is born.”
All these factors have contributed to the decimation of their population.
“Dugongs are on the verge of extinction,” deplored the Pawikan Conservation Project (PCP), an implementing arm of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB). PCP manages and coordinates both the “pawikan” (marine turtles) and dugong conservation efforts of the government and private sector.
In the Philippines, the dugong has been listed as “vulnerable to extinction” since 1982. However, it took nine years for the government to issue Administrative Order No. 55, declaring dugong “a protected marine mammal in the Philippines.”
“The killing or taking of dugong for whatever purposes, except for scientific research is now prohibited,” the administrative order said in part. “Any person who shall hunt, kill, wound, or take away, possess, transport, or dispose of the dugong, dead or alive, or its meat and any of its by-products, shall be punished.”
The order also stipulated that vessels or carriers, gears, tools, equipment, and other paraphernalia used in the commission of the prohibited acts and offenses, including the catch, as instrument and proceeds of the offenses, shall be confiscated in favor of the government.
Today, the dugong is listed as “critically endangered” in Administrative Order No. 2004-14 dated May 22, 2004, of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). By virtue of Executive Order 192, DENR is the government agency mandated to formulate and implement plans and programs for the conservation, protection, development, and management of the country’s wildlife resources, including the dugong.
In 2007, the Philippine National Seagrass Conservation Strategy and Action Plan, which included maps of significant areas for seagrass conservation, was developed.
So far, 123 marine areas have been identified as priorities for conservation action in the Philippine Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (2015-2028). The plan also includes a target of no net loss in the presence or distribution of live coral, mangroves, and seagrasses by 2028. Dugongs are included in the Preventing Species Extinction Plan as a priority species for protection and monitoring.
The dugongs, however, can’t be saved and protected should the government do it alone, PCP says. Thus, it urges Filipinos to help save the dugongs from extinction by reporting any illegal fishing activities to DENR, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, or even to local government units in the area.
Dugongs are called sea cows because they graze on seagrasses. An adult dugong can consume more than 30 kilograms of seagrass a day. The Philippines has 18 species along its coasts, making the country the second-highest (after Western Australia’s more than 30 species) in terms of the number of seagrasses in the world. The area covered by seagrasses in the country is 27,282 square kilometers.
“Dugongs and sea turtles serve as lawn mowers of the seagrass beds and they are necessary to maintain a healthy marine ecosystem. If you have clean seagrass habitats, more fishes will thrive in the area and that means a sustainable food supply,” said Gregg Yan, information officer of WWF Philippines.
The PCP appeals to all Filipinos to help protect the habitats of dugongs. They can do so by not polluting the water and by being environmentally-conscious.
“Losses of marine mammals constitute only a tiny portion of the overall devastation, but have caused particular concern because they serve as highly visible indicators of the difficulties other species, including humans, face,” reminds Ed Ayres, a researcher of the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute.