By Janina Castro

Dugongs (Dugong dugon), also known as sea cows, can be found in Coron, Palawan. They are often gray or brown in color and have a torpedo-shaped body. Unlike their manatee cousins, this marine animal has a triangular shaped fin, more similar to that of a dolphin’s.

Its importance to seagrass

Dugongs spend most of their time grazing the bottom of the ocean for seagrass.

Lemnuel Aragones, director of University of the Philippines’ Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology and Head of the Marine Mammal
Research and Stranding Laboratory, led his research team and conducted a study in 2006, which showed seagrass beds becoming healthier and richer when there were dugongs regularly feeding on them.

According to dugong conservationist Dr. Teri Aquino, grazing helps kick up
nutrients from the seafloor. This makes micronutrients more accessible for smaller fish. The presence of dugongs in seagrass beds makes them healthier that coral reef fishes can use them as their feeding ground, nursery, and resting area.

Healthy seagrass beds can also absorb the energy from waves, protecting coastlines from larger waves created by strong typhoons. This goes to
show how important dugongs are, not only to seagrass bed ecology, but also to beaches.

“Mermaid” hotspot

These shy mammals can be seen in the shallow waters of the Coral Triangle, a marine biodiversity hotspot that covers the coasts of Malaysia, Indonesia, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Madagascar, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, Vanuatu, and the Philippines.

Threatened population

Despite being found throughout the coasts of East Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, dugong populations have been decreasing, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

In their 2015 assessment, dugongs were classified as “vulnerable” because they face continuous threats, such entanglement in fishnets, illegal hunting, and even getting struck by boats. Because they rarely end up as bycatch, it can be difficult to convince locals that these animals are threatened by irresponsible and illegal fishing practices.

Dugongs used to be more common in the Philippines, but their population has declined over the years due to habitat loss. Unfortunately, their population has been rather small to begin with, making them prone to other natural disease outbreaks and inbreeding.

Heavy penalties

Seagrass beds are often destroyed in illegal activities, such as reclamation. Violators can face imprisonment of up to 12 years and fines up to PHP 1M.

Protecting the dugong

Dugongs are protected by the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act (RA 9147), which states that it is illegal to kill, injure, collect, or maltreat them. It is also illegal to dump waste in or occupy their habitat.

Protecting the sea cows

The Tagbanua tribe has become the protector of marine animals along the Busuanga coast. The islands of Dimipac, Aban-aban, and Maltanubong are in the ancestral lands of the tribe on Calauit Island and are visited for possible dugong sightings.

So far, there are 30 Tagbanua members trained and assigned to be “Bantay Dugongs” – they make sure that the dugong watch runs efficiently, while also protecting other marine wildlife. The program allows tourists to watch dugongs from the boat, with the option to snorkel or scuba dive with the
supervision of the Tagbanua tribe.

Dugongs face various threats, especially here in the Philippines. Enforcement of the law is necessary and working alongside local people, such as the Tagbanua, are key to the survival of the dugong and other wildlife species.

In the past, developing countries have the tendency to prioritize local economic growth over marine mammal conservation, but the dugong
watch program proves these two can go hand in hand.

The future of the coasts is tied to healthy seagrass beds and thriving coastal life.

Strict supervision

Bantay Dugongs have the right to stop a tour if tourists refuse to follow the guidelines of the dive. Tours are also limited to 40 people per day to allow dugongs to rest and prevent them from being stressed. Guests are allowed to spend 15 minutes diving and they can get as close as five meters to the sea cows.

This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s July-August 2020 issue.

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