Behind the Mermaid Myth: Dugongs and Their Fight Against Extinction
The only known population of Dugongs in India are: the Gulf of Kutch, Gulf of Mannar, & Andaman & Nicobar Islands.
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Fairytales surrounding the possible existence of a mermaid – half human, half fish – have remained stuck in the minds of storytellers for hundreds of years now.
Given the level of fascination surrounding the mermaid, it becomes interesting to note that the closest reference to a mermaid, for many storytellers from the medieval or the modern era, has been that of the dugong.
In fact, the dugong has remained the inspiration behind recreating a mermaid-like creature for their sculptures, paintings and stories as well.
Of these, the most widely-known account is that of Christopher Columbus who wrote in his journal: “On the previous day [8 Jan 1493]…. distinctly saw three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.”
Unfortunately, though the creation of imagination – the mermaid – has become a part of the mainstream narrative through visual recreation and vivid storytelling, the inspiration behind it – the dugong – has been long forgotten.
Dugongs Need Similar Campaign to ‘Save the Tigers'
Of course, there have been occasional attempts at bringing the dugong to the mainstream of conservation efforts like the recent hullabaloo that followed after the updated list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List was released at the COP15 of the UN Convention of Biodiversity in Montreal.
The update revealed that the dugong population in and around East Africa and New Caledonia had reached critically endangered and endangered levels respectively.
As has become routine, broadcast media ran three-minute features on the dugong’s vegetarian diet while print media wrote three paragraphs about the dugong’s love for seagrass.
Now, after about two weeks since the report was released, there is just silence. Therefore, the challenge before the collective humanity is to convert this occasional and singular outcry over a particular species reaching the brink of extinction to a more sustained awareness campaign about the species, its significance and the need to protect it.
In a way, the initiative provided conservationists and nature-lovers with a template that could be put to use to preserve an unconventional marine mammal population like the dugong in an effective manner.
Endangered Dugongs Under Threat of Poaching
As per historical accounts, the dugongs were found in huge numbers along the eastern coast of India until the late eighteenth century.
Today, the only known population around India exists in three places: the Gulf of Kutch, the Gulf of Mannar and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.
Despite the highest level of protection under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 being accorded to the dugong, its population has consistently declined over the years.
While there are various factors that have contributed to the existing situation, three factors have had an overwhelming impact on the dwindling population of dugongs:
The inadvertent capture in fishing nets,
The intentional poaching for its meal and oil,
The continuing erosion of seagrasses.
While the carcasses of adult dugongs being washed ashore beaches at the Shaheed Dweep in 2009 or Rameshwaram in 2012 seldom make the front page of national dailies, there have been many instances of carcasses being found with a hundred-odd stab marks all over the body.
Pieces of flesh had been cut off from different parts of the body, in an indication that the mammal had been poached mercilessly.
Despite the protection accorded under legislations of different jurisdictions, poaching has continued as the dugong meat was coveted as a delicacy by inhabitants of many islands and nations.
Along with the intentional poaching, there have also been many instances of inadvertent capturing in fishing nets as well. Due to the inability of the dugong to survive underwater for more than six minutes at a stretch, it surfaces above for oxygen frequently.
It is at this juncture that most boat injuries as well as unintentional capturing occurs.
The chances of a dugong surviving after getting caught within fishing nets are bleak, even when there is help.
The chances for its calf to survive such capturing are almost zero, mostly due to the accompanying anxiety for the animal. Therefore, there are much-needed measures to be taken to better protect the species.
Ministry of Environment Has Launched a Task Force for Dugong Conservation
Within most coastline communities where marine ecosystems are fundamental to the livelihoods and food security of its inhabitants, the existence of a legislation cannot possibly have as much of an impact on conservation unless community-led efforts are taken up in a large and structured way.
Only when there is constant engagement with the coastline communities about the significance of the marine mammal, its dietary preferences and its place in the marine ecology will the situation on the ground (or in this case, under the ground) improve to some degree.
At the same time, it would be wholly unfair to say that no steps have been taken until now.
At different levels, many stakeholders have been undertaking initiatives to generate awareness about the species as well as conduct meticulous research about its habitat, diet as well as psyche.
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change launched the Endangered Species Recovery Programme as well as constituted a Task Force for Conservation of Dugongs to look at the entire gamut of issues related to its conservation.
At the same time, the Government of Tamil Nadu has declared India’s first dugong conservation reserve in the Palk Bay and plans to set up a conservation centre for the dugong within two years as well.
Plans for the conservation centre include a dugong monitoring/tracking facility as well as an environmental DNA research facility, which would help researchers develop an even better understanding of the species as well.
There Is an Urgent Need to Spread Awareness About the Vulnerability of Dugongs
Apart from the deteriorating habitat, accidental capturing as well as ongoing human activities that have contributed heavily to the ongoing climate crisis, the fact that these gentle giants in the marine ecosystem have a long lifespan coupled with a very slow rate of reproduction also contributes to its depleting numbers.
With a long gestation period and significant time invested in childcare as well, dugongs tend to give birth to only a single calf every three to seven years.
Therefore, unlike many other species that easily rebound from the brink of extinction after some attention, the revival of the dugong population would be a tough task.
Tough, but not impossible. Two of the six goals flagged by the task force are aimed at improving our understanding of the dugong and promoting awareness around its habitat.
The short to medium-term need is to invest heavily in research around its habitat, to restore seagrass as is being done now in various parts of India (particularly the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay) and to create a buzz around the state of the marine mammal.
In the long-term, however, there is an urgent need to ensure that the vulnerable species becomes an integral part of everyday conversations not only within the marine biologist, research or environmentalist circles but in homes as well.
If done properly, the dugong will survive as well as thrive in the near future as well.
(Kumar Ritwik is a lawyer based in Gurgaon, with a deep passion and interest in environment and wildlife.)
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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