Wildlife & Biodiversity

World Dugong Day 2020: Marine mammal fighting for survival in Indian waters

Conservation only way to save species from extinction, says experts

 
By Ashis Senapati
Last Updated: Wednesday 27 May 2020
Dugongs, the world's only vegetarian marine mammal are threatened with extinction. Photo: Ashis Senapati
Dugongs, the world's only vegetarian marine mammal are threatened with extinction. Photo: Ashis Senapati Dugongs, the world's only vegetarian marine mammal are threatened with extinction. Photo: Ashis Senapati

The dugong, commonly known as the sea cow, is fighting for its survival in Indian waters and unless conserved, could one day become extinct, experts have said on the eve of ‘World Dugong Day’ on May 28, 2020.  

Dugongs are an endangered marine species like sea turtles, seahorses, sea cucumbers and others. They are protected in India under Schedule I of the Wild (Life) Protection Act, 1972.

There were just 250 dugongs in the Gulf of Mannar in Tamil Nadu, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat according to the 2013 survey report of the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI).

The survey was conducted under the leadership of then ZSI director K Venkataraman, Basudev Tripathy deputy director of ZSI, Kolkata, told this reporter.

In 2010, we had counted 250 dugongs in the Gulf of Mannar, the Andamans and Gulf of Kutch through a boat survey, K Sivakumar, a senior scientist of the department of Endangered Species Management at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, said.

This year, we will count the dugongs with the help of underwater drone cameras, he added.  

There is no doubt that dugongs are an important part of the marine ecosystem and their depletion will have effects all the way up the food chain, Sivakumar noted.

Threats to dugongs

Dugongs are mammals, which means they give birth to live young and then produce milk and nurse them.

Once the female is pregnant, she will carry the unborn baby, called a foetus for 12-14 months before giving birth. Female dugongs give birth underwater to a single calf at three to seven-year intervals.

Dugongs graze on seagrass, especially young shoots and roots in shallow coastal waters. They can consume up to 40 kilograms of seagrass in a day.

Human activities such as the destruction and modification of habitat, pollution, rampant illegal fishing activities, vessel strikes, unsustainable hunting or poaching and unplanned tourism are the main threats to dugongs.

The loss of seagrass beds due to ocean floor trawling was the most important factor behind dwindling dugong populations in many parts of the world, Sivakumar said.

Hundreds of dugongs inhabited waters off the Odisha, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh coasts two centuries back. But they are extinct in these areas now, he added.

Seagrass in Odisha’s Chilika lake is a proper habitat for dugongs. However, there is not extant population in Chilika, Sivakumar said.

He talked about how a decade back, fishermen used to sell dugong meat at Rs 1,000 per kilogram in Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Andaman. Many gullible people used to consume the meat under the wrong impression that it would cool their body temperature.

The killings have stopped though, ever since, the WII began awareness drives among people.

We often organise dugong protection awareness camps among local fishermen and others in the seaside villages of Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and the Andamans, Sivakumar said.

The 13th Conference of Parties (CoP) of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), an environmental treaty under the aegis of the United Nations Environment Programme, was hosted by India from February 17-22, 2020 at Gandhinagar in Gujarat. 

The Government of India is a signatory to the CMS since 1983. India has signed non-legally binding Memorandums of Understanding with CMS on the conservation and management of Siberian Cranes (1998), Marine Turtles (2007), Dugongs (2008) and Raptors (2016), Sivakumar added. 

Proper conservation is the only way to save dugongs from extinction. Conservation in other places like Australia has seen their population crossing 85,000, Tripathy said.

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