One of India’s rarest and most hunted-down mammals turns out to be a cow – but not one of the bovine variety. The Dugong ‘sea-cow’ is a species of herbivorous mammal that lives underwater, frequenting India’s coastline in the North-West, East, and parts of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
They’re gentle, shy creatures that avoid humans (unless the human is David Attenborough). All they want to do is graze the patches of sea grass to be found on the shallow coasts across parts of India and Sri Lanka – replenishing the local ecosystem in the process.
Unlike India’s terrestrial cows which are worshiped, the sea-cow became an endangered species out of a combination of hunting and habitat degradation. Millions of years ago, the Dugong’s ancestors were the first vegetarians of the mammal kingdom to seek a life underwater. For much of its known history, it had no real predator – except man.
Being social creatures, they graze in groups. A perfect target for country bombs, as villagers along the Palk Strait, proved in the 1980s.
Blast fishing is a practice of using explosives – country bombs, and later, dynamite – to stun large groups of fish to make their capture easier. The Dugong became a bombing target for its flesh – the meat of which is highly craved in the Tamil Nadu village of Kilakarai (so craved, that family feuds were known to happen if one side did not share their Dugong meat with the other). The fishermen’s aim is said to be so brutal that the mammals are often struck in the face by the explosion – not stunning, but killing them. In a single year between 1983-1984, 250 Dugongs were killed in two villages in the Ramanathapuram district alone.
Today, they number only as many across the Indian coast. Blast fishing and hunting the Dugong is now illegal, but the damage has been done. They are now on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List – under the vulnerable category.
The mermaid that maintains the environment
The word Dugong means ‘lady of the sea’ in Malay. It is the only extant marine mammal of the Dugongidae family, of the order Sirenia. Sirenia, otherwise known as sea cows, are called so because they were historically mistaken for sirens – popularly known as mermaids.
The order Sirenia is called so because they used to be mistaken for mermaids – from their five-fingered forelimbs. Sighting them rising gracefully from the water, one might mistake them for a human (or a mermaid with ‘masculine traits’ as Christopher Columbus described it).
Underwater, they’re unmistakable. They do resemble cows, munching slowly on seagrass. And like cows, they serve a valuable ecological function.
“In the protection of this single species, we can ultimately protect three different habitats,” says Dr. N. Marimuthu – a scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII).
He explains the role the Dugong play in the coastal ecosystem. Coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds form the trio of this coastal ecosystem. The mangroves capture floating sediments, and serve as a filter between land and sea. The grass captures nutrients (and has the added bonus of turning carbon dioxide into oxygen) and stabilizes the flow of nutrients – keeping the coral reefs alive. If nutrients are allowed to accumulate, algae start to spread and choke out the coral reef’s growth. The reefs protect the mangroves from excessive waves.
By eating the seagrass, the Dugong removes the excessive sediments and nutrients – that would otherwise choke the coral reefs. “The Dugong replenishes the environment and the nutrients from the sediment. They refresh the water environment,” says Dr. Marimuthu. The seagrass has the added benefit of absorbing carbon dioxide – making it a natural cure for global warming.
Today, more than half of the world’s seagrass has disappeared, taking most of the Dugong population with it.
The future of the Dugong
Currently, Dugongs are distributed across 128,000 Kilometres of coastline across 36 countries. As a species, they’ve gone extinct in the Maldives, parts of Lakshadweep and Taiwan – and are heading for extinction in Malaysia, with only a scattering remaining in China and Japan. They’re most numerous in Australia, with a stable population of over 10,000 in the Shark Bay.
In India, the WII has set up the Task Force for the Conservation of Dugongs, with efforts underway to provide an accurate estimate of their population, according to Marimuthu. Community awareness programmes have been conducted, to inform fishermen and their children of the benefits of keeping the Dugong alive. A ban on coral mining, Dugong hunting and the enforcement of environmental norms saw sections of the coral ecosystem recover over the years.
The Gulf of Mannar is the Dugong’s largest known habitats in India, with between 77-158 surviving members according to a Zoological Survey of India estimate. The Gulf of Mannar is one of 18 biosphere reserves in India. These reserves are India’s greatest natural treasures, and the logo of the Mannar trust is a Dugong. The logo depicts the mammal floating gracefully above the water, its forelimbs clasped in a ‘namaste.’ At first, it seems like a gesture of respect. But in India, the ‘namaste’ gesture of hands clasped together is also a sign of ultimate despair.
It’s hard to tell just how gentle these creatures are from a picture. So maybe a video of Attenborough will help make them come alive.
If awareness can be spread so their hunting is ceased, and their habitats protected, the Dugong can continue grazing for you, me and rest of the ecosystem.
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