By Soumya Banerjee:
The CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority) has recently declared dugongs to be among the five species on which special focus will be given. A species recovery plan is also being drafted to help increase their populations. These, and many more stringent measures, need to be implemented urgently before India loses her last few ‘angels of the sea’.
A medium-sized marine mammal, which, at first glance, appears to resemble a hornless bull with flippers, the dugong is the only strictly herbivorous marine mammal in existence. The dugongs, and their relatives, the manatees, may even have been the inspiration behind the legend of the mermaid.
However, given the immense threats they face today, the dugongs may exist only in the forms of fables in the coming years, unless strict measures are taken to ensure their protection. As recent as March 2015, a male dugong weighing 200 kg was found washed up on the beach of Maraikayarpattinam, Tamil Nadu.
Dugongs are found in warm coastal waters in the Indo-Pacific region. Their numbers are usually higher in wide and shallow protected bays and mangrove channels. They are remarkably long-lived, often attaining 70 years of age. They are usually solitary or found in pairs, though larger gatherings sometimes occur. Their diet consists mainly of seagrass, and they use their strong sense of smell to locate edible plants.
Dugongs have a relatively slow rate of reproduction, which, coupled with their dependence on seagrass, makes them an ecologically fragile species. This makes it even harder for them to recover from the brutal assault which man launches upon them each day.
A variety of factors are responsible for their endangerment. Possibly, the biggest threat is the entanglement of dugongs in fishing nets. Gill netting and shark nets cause most deaths. They have also been hunted for millennia for their meat and oil. Environmental degradation brought about by marine pollution and the destruction of coastlines also destroys the seagrass meadows on which they depend on.
In India, only about 250 dugongs remain, according to a ZSI survey in 2013. The 3 main habitats in Indian waters are:
a)Gulf of Mannar- 77-158 dugongs
c)Gulf of Kutch-10-15 dugongs
Extensive seagrass meadows are found only along the Gulf of Mannar. This population thus has the best long-term survival potential. However, they have historically been subjected to a lot of poaching by fishermen here, partly because of the mistaken belief that their meat acts as an aphrodisiac.
The protection of the dugong has been brought under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act and yet hardly ever imprisonment for poaching occurs. ZSI director K Venkataraman said that, “More cooperation among countries in the South Asian region is needed to protect them from extinction.”