One look at a picture of a plump, laidback dugong and you know it’s more closely related to the elephant than a seductive young siren. Sirenians, the order under which dugongs and manatees are filed, get their name from Greek folklore. The sailors of yesteryear somehow mistook the friendly grey creatures that they came across on their ocean adventures, for mermaids.
Yet, when you see them gliding beneath the surface of the water, dugongs are certainly beautiful; graceful and gentle, maybe even seductive if you’re a travel-weary seafarer.
And these days, seeing an actual live dugong is as rare, and possibly even more enchanting than seeing the ever elusive mermaid.
Mozambique’s last 250
The Globally Vulnerable dugong is found off the shores of about 48 countries, from the coast of east Africa in the western extent of its range, to the Vanuatu islands in the South Pacific Ocean at the eastern edge of its range. Australia has the biggest population, but in other areas such as Mauritius and Taiwan, they are already considered extinct.
In southern Africa, about 250 dugongs represent the region’s last remaining viable population. They cling to their precarious existence off the coast of Mozambique, around the Bazaruto Archipelago National Park.
The disappearing seagrasses
Being highly dependent on seagrass for survival, dugongs go where the meadows grow. They are so dependent on seagrass that, should there be a food shortage, they will delay breeding. Given that the species is naturally slow to breed, investing plenty of energy and time in each calf, any extra pressure on dugong habitats can have a big impact on their future existence.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says the rate at which seagrass is being lost is much higher than that of forests on dry land. This is worrying for dugongs and, since seagrass meadows store large amounts of underground carbon, it also contributes to the enormous threat that Climate Change already poses to our planet.
Development and the growing human population along Africa’s eastern coastline are having a serious impact on the dugong’s habitat. Waste spillage pollutes the water, while overgrazing and clearing for agriculture causes erosion and sedimentation, affecting water quality and ultimately destroying seagrass meadows. Fishing with seine nets further adds to habitat destruction, as the nets are dragged along the ocean floor, uprooting and damaging seagrasses.
The slow-moving, trusting dugong is also vulnerable to subsistence hunters, who find it an easy target. Dugongs play an important cultural role in many areas of their range. Their meat is a delicacy in some cultures, while their oil is used as fuel for lamps. In Kenya it is believed that inhaling the smoke of burning dugong bones will ease anything from toothache to labour pain. Kenyans also make jewellery out of dugong bones and tusks.
However, the biggest threat to Mozambique’s dugongs appears to be gillnets. Many Mozambicans rely heavily on marine resources for their livelihoods. Gillnets, the large mesh nets that the fishermen use to catch fish, often become a deadly trap for dugongs that get caught up in them and drown.
Being a responsible tourist
While it’s a rare and therefore a sought after experience to see, and possibly even swim with a dugong, scientists don’t yet fully understand the impact this has on them. As such, if you’re one of the lucky few who do get to swim with a dugong, common sense says you shouldn’t harass them. This means not chasing after them or trying to touch them. Divers also need to take the utmost care not to disturb the dugong’s sensitive underwater environment.
And it’s not just our behaviour in the sea. Despite the fact that it’s illegal to drive on the beach in most parts of Mozambique, many people still tear up the sensitive coastal ecology with quad bikes, motorbikes and 4-wheel drive vehicles. The impact of this extends far beyond dugongs. Beach-nesting birds are affected, as are breeding sea turtles. Then there’s the less visible impact on the structural stability of the beach, the coastal vegetation and the millions of tiny creatures living in the beach sands. Unless you’re launching a boat in a designated area or are doing research, and you have a permit, beach driving is a bad idea.
It may seem obvious, but visitors should take care not to leave garbage lying around, even accidentally, as it can kill marine life. And as important as it is not to leave anything behind, it’s equally important not to take anything away. Washed up shells and bits of coral form an important part of the marine ecosystem, while the living creatures, be they plants, animals or even eggs, must be left to contribute to the delicate balance of the local ecology.
Partnering for conservation
While each of us can reduce our own impacts on dugongs, it takes far broader support to halt the decline of a threatened species.
Fortunately, the Mozambican government, together with leading conservation NGOs such as WWF and the EWT, and scientists, both local and global, have partnered to achieve this goal. Improved law enforcement is one essential task they’re tackling, along with ongoing research and habitat mapping.
But a community-focused approach to dugong conservation is key to long-term success. Many local people are extremely dependent on the environment for survival. To this end conservationists are working with local communities towards sustainable marine resource use. Done correctly, this could mean improved livelihoods for the local people through food availability and improved income, and of course, a safer and more stable environment for the dugong.
For the dreamers, like me, who choose to live in a world where mermaids might exist, along with unicorns (OK, rhinos), elves (well, maybe they’re dragonflies) and faeries (probably butterflies or lacewings), saving the last of the world’s dugongs is non-negotiable. But of course, they’re more than just a faerie tale to suit my fancy. The loss of any species is a sign of an environment that’s not healthy. And ultimately, an unhealthy environment means a poorer quality of life for us all.