Considering most South Africans are not particularly familiar with the endangered species my programme is endeavoring to protect, and as this is my first attempt at blogging, I thought to introduce myself and the Dugong as a start. I’m Karen, and I run the Dugong Emergency Protection Project. This first began as a concept in 2010, and has slowly developed into a more robust and focused project that is looking to the heart of why Dugongs are dwindling, and how best to address this issue. The waters of east Africa stretching from Eritrea to Maputo in Mozambique- a stretch of 9,000km of coastline- once supported prolific Dugong populations. Today however, only 1 viable population remains along this coast, and is estimated at no more than 200 animals. This is the Bazaruto Archipelago population, and we are attempting to ensure its continuation.
The most looming threat to Dugongs is their entanglement in gill nets- which happens both deliberately and also unintentionally. The largely under-resourced National Park that is responsible for their protection in Bazaruto is simply unable to enforce the stringent law enforcement efforts that are required to curb Dugong mortality.
Dugongs are long-lived, the oldest recorded animal was aged at 73. They measure up to 3,5m and can weigh in at nearly 400kg. Entirely gentle, they have been known to swim with divers and even allow their bellies to be scratched. The female starts reproducing anywhere between the ages of 10 to 17, and her calf is born after a gestation of 14 months. The single calf suckles for up to 2 years, and the interval between calving can be up to 5 years. Dugongs can eat up to 10% of their body weight in seagrass daily. These flowering marine plants are however vulnerable to a number of human-induced impacts, and are under threat from mechanical damage caused by seine netting, pollution, and sedimentation. 60% of seagrasses have been lost from the Indian Ocean to date. The Dugong’s life history parameters, coupled with its complete dependency on seagrass makes it vulnerable to population decline.
Without complete support from all the necessary sectors of Mozambique’s government- our hands are tied. On a recent field trip to Maputo however, I managed to enlist and secure the support of all relevant Government Departments and institutions involved in Dugong conservation. These are now all committed to assisting us with the implementation of project activities which involve research, designing strategic approaches to more effective law enforcement, and putting forward suggested areas of total protection for Dugongs. This has been a long and arduous process, and we hope to finally start baring the fruits of these efforts.
Keep up the support- keep defending Dugongs!