Dugong conservation project makes waves

Conservation of the iconic “sea cow” and its seagrass habitat requires education and incentives.

Nairobi, 27 December 2016: Popularly known as “sea cows”, dugongs are an endangered species. They are affected by fishing activities, coastal pollution, killed for their meat, or injured by boats.

They feed exclusively on seagrass in shallow coastal areas of the Indo-West Pacific.

Tropical seagrass ecosystems are as important as coral reef systems because they are critical to the sustainability of coastal fisheries. They stabilize sediments, filter vast quantities of nutrients and play an important role in reducing the effects of climate change.

The Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project focuses on the dugong range states of Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mozambique, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste and Vanuatu. It seeks to work with local communities to help them understand the benefits of conserving dugongs and their habitat.

“What’s really exciting about this project is that it combines in an innovative way policy, education, conservation, research, alternative livelihood schemes – and new technology such as drones and social media – to drive change on the dugong conservation front,” says Max Zieren, a senior staff member with UN Environment.  

For example, in Malaysia the project is using drones for dugong and seagrass surveys
In Lawas, Malaysia, the Sarawak Forestry Corporation, needed to map the area, extent and density of seagrass meadows along the coast. Rather than booking an airplane to conduct an aerial survey, the team purchased and learned to fly drones equipped with high resolution cameras. The team now regularly flies dugong and seagrass monitoring and measurement missions to better gauge the effectiveness of conservation efforts, and at a significantly reduced cost.

In Mozambique the project is building resilience of local communities
Bazaruto Archipelago is a group of six islands in central-southern Mozambique. The project, in collaboration with the Endangered Wildlife Trust and Blue Ventures (a non-governmental organization which aims to “rebuild tropical fisheries with coastal communities”), is working with local fisher families. It is establishing rapport with local communities by providing reproductive health services. At the same time, it will encourage communities to stop detrimental fishing practices through incentives like access to exclusive markets for their fish and other mariculture products. These and subsidized or free-of-charge hand lines will be provided to try and reduce the use of gill nets, which inadvertently drown many dugongs.

“We benefit a lot by collaborating with Blue Ventures through their family planning programmes, which builds trust and support in local communities for dugong and fisheries conservation,” says Ivete Joaquim Maibaze, National Director of Environment in the Ministry of Land, Environmental and Rural Development.

Watch this six-minute video to learn more about Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project

Sri Lanka – seagrass, livelihoods and dugong conservation

Biodiversity Education and Research (BEAR), a local non-governmental organization, works on raising awareness and respect for dugongs in northwestern Sri Lanka. It has been talking to local communities about the importance of seagrass and dugongs for fisheries production and eco-tourism.  Local people, who depend heavily on fishing for their livelihoods, are preoccupied with their survival on a day-to-day basis, and as a result conservation has not been a high priority for them.

“Sri Lanka has a wonderful creature, the dugong, which can enhance our tourism potential as well as increase the income and economic well-being of the local population. The critical and pivotal factor here is the conservation of the seagrass beds… This project could not have come at a better time,” says Ranil P. Nanayakkara, BEAR’s principal researcher.

Vanuatu – strong conservation traditions
"In Vanuatu marine conservation is a traditional way of life. We know very little about the dugongs and seagrasses in Vanuatu but they are seen regularly by fishers and surfers. We have been conducting a survey to address the knowledge gap and will be training local communities on how to conserve dugongs in their waters," says Christina Shaw, head of local non-governmental organization Vanuatu Environmental Science Society.

More about dugongs

  1. Dugongs belong to the Sirenia family and are similar to manatees.
  2. They can eat up to 45kg of seagrass a day.
  3. They can grow up to 3 metres long and weigh 500kg.
  4. They can live for up to 70 years.
  5. They can travel hundreds of kilometres in a few days.
  6. Conserving seagrass and dugongs benefits many other species.
  7. The global population has dropped sharply in recent years and is estimated at 120,000 (a tiny number given their huge range)

About the project
The Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project is funded by the Global Environment Facility, a catalyst for action on the environment, to the tune of nearly US$ 6 million, and supported by UN Environment, the Dugong Memorandum of Understanding of the Convention on Migratory Species, national governments, and conservationists from across the world.

It runs from January 2015 to December 2018, and is the first coordinated global effort to conserve dugongs and seagrass.

The project and country implementation partners are coordinated globally by the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, based in Abu Dhabi.

For enquiries: Maya Bankova-Todorova (mbankova[at]mbzfund.org) at +971 50 150 4421 or Max Zieren (max.zieren[at]unep.org) at +66-2-288 2101.