Known locally as the ‘dugong’ (Dugong dugon), this sea cow is a large, charismatic and gentle creature of the sea that is rarely seen these days in the coastal and marine areas where it once thrived.
Shy as it is, very little is known about this highly elusive marine mammal – its population and distribution, how and where it breeds or congregate, or where and how it raises its young.
Fortunately, as a species, the dugong survives many human-made threats, unlike its cousin, the Steller’s sea cow that lived off the coast of western North America, which died out in the 18th century mainly because of hunting.
The dugong is one of four living species in the order Sirenia, which includes three species of manatees: Amazonian, West Indian, and West African manatees. It is the only living representative of the once diverse family Dugongidae.
Dugong life cycle
Known to live up to 70 years, it takes around four to 17 years for this marine herbivore to become sexually mature.
Feeding on seagrass, an adult dugong can weigh from 250 to 900 kg. This is not surprising as scientists say its closest land mammal relative is the elephant and not the cows. It got the name sea cow only because it feeds on sea grass.
A dugong’s gestation period lasts about 13 to 15 months, which means it can only breed once every three years, or for up to 7 years, and can only produce one offspring at a time.
A mother dugong should look after until the baby dugong can fend for itself by eating seagrass 14 to 18 months after birth.
Known to occur in 37 countries in the Indo-Pacific region, the global population of sea cows is in decline. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species classifies the dugong as vulnerable.
In the Philippines, the dugong is critically endangered, a conservation status that means the species is one step away from being declared extinct.
Yet, despite its conservation status, very little is still known about the dugong and its way of life. This may be the reason why its population continues to decline.
There are five priority sites for dugong conservation in the Philippines: Calauit Island in Busuanga and Green Island Bay (which has ongoing conservation initiatives), both in the province of Palawan; the region of Malita and Davao del Sur; Sarangani Bay; and the Sulu Archipelago.
save the dugongs
In the Philippines, at least one group, the Community-Centered Conservation-Philippines (C3PH), works closely with communities to save the species from extinction.
In his online presentation at the World Wildlife Day celebration organized by the Bureau of Biodiversity Management (BMB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) on March 4, Reynante V. Ramilo , program coordinator of C3PH, said conserving the critically endangered dugong in the Philippines has always been a major challenge.
“The species’ decline and escalating threats have led to its classification as critically endangered,” he said.
Ramilo said the dugong’s extinction can easily be blamed on a number of human-induced threats, such as fishing bycatch, direct hunting, rapid coastal development and habitat degradation.
“Sometimes fishermen are forced to sacrifice their [dugong] lives even though they know it is illegal to harm or kill dugongs because they want to save their fishing nets more than the dugongs,” Ramilo said in an April 19 telephone interview.
As part of the C3PH conservation measure to save dugongs caught in fishing nets, Ramilo said they are offering to pay fishermen the cost of fishing nets to save the life of the poor dugong.
“Last year, we encountered two incidents where we paid the fishermen the cost of the fishing net and we were able to save the lives of the dugongs,” he recalls.
DENR Administrative Order 55 of 1991 declared the dugong a protected marine mammal of the Philippines.
This means that harming, hunting, killing, trading or even possessing a dugong, dead or alive, is punishable by law.
The declaration gives it a unique importance as a species, perhaps equal to that of other iconic animals like the Philippine eagle, which is protected by Republic Act 6147, which declared it a protected bird in the United States. Philippines.
At the same time, the Philippine tamaraw is protected by Commonwealth Act 73 which prohibits the killing, hunting, injuring or removal of the tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis), which was approved on October 23, 1936.
Important ecosystem function
In his presentation, Ramilo said the importance of the dugong to fisheries and marine biodiversity cannot be overstated.
A member of the IUCN-Sirenia Specialist Group, Ramilo said dugongs help stabilize sediments, filter large amounts of nutrients and play an important role in the marine ecosystem.
“The dugongs that live in these seagrass ecosystems are great barometers of the overall health of the ecosystem,” Ramilo said in a mix of Filipino and English.
He said the dugong’s constant grazing of seagrass encourages regrowth, ensuring critical habitat and feeding sites for a host of other marine species, including turtles, dolphins and sawfish.
Although it is widely known that they inhabit and can only be found among seagrass beds, in fact, “finding” them is easier said than done.
Take it from diver and explorer Gregg Yan. “It took me decades to see a wild dugong,” he recalls.
“Large herds of dugongs once roamed the Philippine archipelago until hunting and habitat loss drastically reduced their numbers. Some herds are still holding out in Isabela, Mindanao, Guimaras and Palawan, but encounters are extremely rare,” Yan told BusinessMirror via Messenger on April 19.
He explained that encountering a dugong is different from seeing a whale, “which takes your breath away because of its size, nor a shark which inspires just a bit of primal fear”.
“Dugongs are huge but cute and friendly, just like a Hodor mermaid,” he said.
Although they are indeed elusive and hard to find, on Calauit Island “dugong hunting” is offered as part of the diving experience for tourists.
Ocean conservation advocate, master diver and photography expert Danny Ocampo told BusinessMirror via Messenger that because finding sea cows isn’t easy, a local tour guide from Tagbanua will give a big boost to chances of finding them.
However, observing and interacting with the dugongs requires permission from the Tagbanuas who protect them, he stressed.
Ocampo said ecotourism can help raise awareness about wildlife.
“With that awareness, it can help people take care of themselves,” he said when asked for a comment on April 19.
“Ecotourism can also help raise funds needed to manage protected areas/habitats to ensure endangered wildlife such as dugongs can thrive and recover from population declines,” he said. -he adds.
According to Ocampo, interaction guidelines have already been established for dugong and other wildlife tourism. This limits the number of people interacting with them at any given time or the length of time they are exposed to tourists, which can stress them out or change their behavior.
“These [guidelines] should be strictly followed and regular studies should be carried out to assess whether these measures are sufficient,” he said.
According to Ramilo, C3PH will continue to work with communities and local government units in Palawan with the aim of establishing a network of dugong conservation sites in Palawan.
C3PH intends to lobby for the development and implementation of the Dugong Conservation Area Management Plan in coordination with relevant government agencies, and to work with the DENR and the Palawan Council for Development (PCSD) for the declaration of certain areas as critical habitat for the dugong.
“We want to promote participatory research and monitoring with communities and the practice of citizen science,” he said.
Hopefully, he said, between 2022 and 2025, C3PH will be able to replicate dugong conservation on Calauit Island in eight or more other critical sites across Palawan.
Image credits: Danny Ocampo