Sri Lanka signs International MOU to protect Dugongs


A dugong swimming in the sea (c) Mandy Etpison

Sri Lanka has pledged its support to the long-term survival of the dugongs and the protection of their critical sea grass habitats by becoming a signatory state to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs. The secretary of the Agrarian and Wildlife Ministry Udeni Wickramasinghe on behalf of Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) has signed this agreement at Abu-dhabi last month marking Sri lanka’s commitment in Dugong Conservation.

This Dugong MOU operates under the United Nation’s Environment Program (UNEP) and Convention of Migratory Species (CMS). The Secretariat to the Dugong MOU is funded and hosted by the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi where the signing ceremony was carried out.

The dugong (Dugong dugon), often known as the ‘sea cow’ or ‘Muhudu ura’ in Sinhala, is a large, long-lived marine mammal that feeds almost exclusively on sea grass and plays a significant ecological role in the functioning of coastal ecosystems. Dugongs are found in warm coastal and island waters of over 40 countries in the Indo-Pacific. In Sri Lanka, the species is known to occur from Colombo to Jaffna, particularly in the coastal waters of Gulf of Mannar-Palk Bay region, which have sea grass beds and mangrove forests.

Dugongs are classified as ‘Vulnerable to Extinction’ under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. This indicates that Dugons face a risk of extinction getting exposed to a number of threats. Dugongs are long-lived – up to 70 years, but are slow to mature and breed. Females have their first calf when they are between six and 17 years old and then produce calves only once every 2,5–5 years according to marine biologists. The female will usually only bear one calf after a pregnancy which lasts about 14 months. This slow breeding makes them more vulnerable as a population will take a long time to recover.

In Sri Lanka Dugons were considered as a ‘fish’ and allowed hunting until 1970. Though Dugongs are now protected, the killing continued if an opportunity arisen by fishermen. Accidental capture in fishing nets, loss of habitat, boat collision and unsustainable hunting practices like dynamite fishing also responsible for decline of Dugongs. Numbers of Dugongs have fallen victim to dynamite fishing over last few years. Dugongs are bottom feeders grazing sea grass beds, but these too are become an ecosystem that is on the decline, highlighting the need of taking conservation actions.

However, Dugong sightings have now become very rare, so the first step of any conservation plan is to find their current range around Sri Lanka. The UNEP/CMS Office, the Department of Wildlife Conservation, IUCN Sri Lanka and Dilmah Conservation aims to conduct surveys to identify their range as the first activity under the freshly signed MOU. Asanka Abayakoon of Dilmah Conservation said that that the survey will conduct in many parts of coastal zones getting information from fishermen and other parties. The project aims at improving knowledge on dugong distribution, abundance, and their “hotspots’’.

Sighning of the Dugong MOU by secretary of department of Wildlife Conservation

Due to the size of the dugong’s range and their declining population, a coordinated international effort is crucial to the conservation of this threatened marine mammal, calls UNEP/CMS hailing Sri Lanka’s decision to get onboard on Dugong conservation. They believe that other countries in the South Asia sub-region, including Bangladesh, Maldives and Pakistan, will follow Sri Lanka’s lead to formally join the Dugong MOU.

Dilmah Conservation also hosts marine biologist Dr Nicholas Pilcher who had addressed an audience on Dugong Conservation last month. He stressed the ecological importance of the dugong and the ways in which nature benefits from the wellbeing of the dugong. According to Dr Pilcher, the dugong resides is fairly shallow waters where sea grass beds grow in abundance. It feeds on sea grass and keeps the plants nice and trim. These sea grass beds provide the nesting grounds for juvenile fish and shrimp and the fisheries industry is dependent on the wellbeing of the dugong and sea grass beds. He emphasized the importance of having a proper assessment of the numbers of the remaining species to have a proper conservation management plan illustrating his point by citing the extinction of Stellar’s sea cow – the best example where humanity completely eliminated a marine species from the face of the earth.

Prasanna Weerakkody; a well-known marine naturalist also pointed out that current plans to develop the Kalpitiya islands as a tourism zone could have an impact to the most richest Dugong population in Sri Lanka. The Kalpitiya islands are planned to be developed as tourists destinations which require lots of sea transportation. If speed boats would be employed to save the time, it could be a threat to the Dugongs in the area. The area is having more shallow waters with sea grass beds where Dugongs are frequent, so an unwary speed boat could easily go on top of a submerged Dugong seriously injuring the animal. So it is need to have a proper conservation plan to manage these tourism activities in the biodiversity rich Kalpitiya calls Mr.Weerakkody.

Published on SundayTimes on 18.03.2012

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