• Image about Helene Marsh
OKSANA BADRAK
FOR CENTURIES, THE dugong has been hunted by indigenous people, but it has not been considered endangered until recently. Many of those who hunt dugongs believe that certain parts of the animal possess special powers: In Thai communities, dugong tears are reputed to be an aphrodisiac; in Malaysia, dugong teeth are thought to cure asthma; Indonesian men believe that eating dugong meat attracts women; and some Kenyan communities will even smoke the dugong’s burned bones for medicinal purposes.

The dugong’s numbers began their plummet in the 1960s as development of coastal areas and resort construction started disrupting the animal’s foraging habitats. Deforestation and industrial pollution began affecting the dugong’s primary food supply of sea grasses, and modern fishing techniques like gill netting increased the fatality rate. In 2002, after compiling research from 37 countries, Marsh published a detailed action plan for dugong preservation. It’s an uphill battle, she says, because only a handful of governments are wealthy -- and modernized -- enough to educate locals and enforce conservation.

Most nations have banned the killing of dugongs, but in many small villages on isolated islands, people still hunt them, either by using nets or spears or harpoons. Scientists who study dugongs have begun to visit those isolated villages in an attempt to explain to locals the urgency of preservation as well as to determine population counts.

“We’ve done quite a bit of work with indigenous people, trying to look at how community-based management of harvests can be established,” says Marsh. “[We’re] also working with conservation-management agencies to try and minimize the impact of incidental drowning in fishing nets.”

A few locations also promote dugong awareness by offering eco-tourism interactions in the water. Dugong Dive Center, in the Philippines region of Palawan, takes tourists on scuba and snorkel excursions to see dugongs along the coast of Busuanga. Similar opportunities can be found in Vanuatu, in the Sabah state of Malaysia, and in the Christmas Island territory off the coast of Australia.

The semidomesticated dugongs in those places are friendly, but their behavior isn’t typical -- most dugongs tend to be isolated animals. “The wild animals -- they’re quite wary,” says Marsh. “They can be quite curious, but it’s all done on their terms.”

There are also a few animals currently on display in aquariums in Australia, Japan, and Singapore. Unfortunately, though, unlike manatees, dugongs do not do well in captivity, and they’ve never bred successfully in a tank. In many regions, there isn’t much time left for the dugong. Indonesia’s population dropped from 10,000 to just 1,000 in 20 years, and the mammal is expected to soon become extinct in the waters of Taiwan, Japan, China, and East Africa. Young people in Madagascar no longer even know the word for dugong in their language.

The simplest -- yet possibly the hardest -- answer to dugong survival is to change human behavior. Respecting the dugong’s habitat and reducing unnecessary hunting are the first steps to preventing the extinction of the original mermaid of the sea.