Where have all our dugongs gone?

by Admin-Phmp

Text by Henrylito D. Tacio

Photo courtesy of PAMO-SBPS

Last March 11, the Protected Area Management Office (PAMO) reported a sighting of five dugongs foraging in the coast of the Sarangani Bay Protected Seascape (SBPS). It was described as the “biggest herd of dugongs in Region 12.”

Atty. Felix S. Alicer, regional executive director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), said the dugongs, which were spotted by the drone camera, “manifests that the SPBS remains a key marine biodiversity area.”

As such, the area should be protected not only by the environment department but all of its stakeholders. “We rely too much on the constituents of this area for its protection,” said Atty. Alicer, who is also the concurrent chair of the SPBS Protected Area Management Board (PAMB). “DENR alone cannot carry out its functions effectively without the support of the citizenry and the local government units. We must all work together to protect and preserve the biodiversity in the SBPS.”

Generally, only one or two dugongs were sighted during the monthly marine mammal monitoring activity of the DENR in the area. They’re glad that the number has already increased considerably.

“We’re glad that we still have this number of dugongs in SBPS,” said Protected Area Superintendent Joy C. Ologuin. “We thought we’re losing this species because we were considered a hotspot of dugong in the whole Philippines. We are so delighted now.”

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.”

Another 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. At present, 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.

“Populations of dugong… in the country were found declining despite legislation and conservation efforts,” said Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines, one of the leading researchers of the book Red List Status of Marine Mammals in the Philippines.

There are several reasons why dugongs are fast disappearing in the Philippine waters. Data from the Haribon Philippines, an environmental group, show that most of these are due to man’s interventions.

“These marine mammals are affected by a range of human-related threats and habitat degradation,” the Dugong MOU agreed. “In addition, extreme weather patterns such as severe storm events destroy critical seagrass beds on which dugong depend.”

But the primary culprit for dugong’s near extinction is still man’s craving for meat. The dugong’s meat is tasty and can be compared with that of beef. When smoked, the taste is similar to bacon.

“Dugongs are heavily hunted,” deplored a Filipino environmentalist. Its slow movement and inability to take long dives make it 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.”

If the hunting does not stop, the environment department claimed dugongs might join its closest relative, the Steller’s sea cow, which was discovered in 1741 and was apparently hunted to extinction less than 30 years after its discovery.

According to marine scientists, the dugongs are captured with fishnets, spears, or even dynamite. They are also accidentally caught in baklad or fish corrals usually erected by fisherfolk in shallow waters with a profuse concentration of seagrasses.

In addition, dugongs reproduce slowly. This slow reproductive rate means slow population growth, and a high mortality rate may hasten the decline of the species. Experts claim a dugong sexually matures at age 9 to 10 years or as late as 15 years.

The National Geographic says, “Female dugongs have one calf after a yearlong pregnancy, and the mother helps her young reach the surface and take its first breath. A young dugong remains close to its mother for about 18 months, sometimes catching a ride on her broad back.”

“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 the 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.

The dugongs can’t be saved and protected if doing so will be left alone to the government, PCP says. Private citizens must do their part as well. 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. 

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