Global Alert to Save the Dugong
By Suvendrini Kakuchi*
The plight of the dugong, or sea cow, should attract the same level of concern as that of whales, say environmentalists. This sea mammal could disappear within 25 years.
HENOKO, Okinawa, Japan - A hot sun beats down on the sleepy village of Henoko, which is surrounded by a vast blue ocean that is home to Japan's fast depleting number of dugong, one of the world's most endangered sea mammals.
The dugong is a snub-nosed mammal that has inspired myths of mermaids and sirens among seafarers because of its dolphin-like tail.
Like other large marine mammals, the dugong are at serious risk of extinction, so much so that the United Nations predicts they could disappear within 25 years.
Okinawa is currently the only place in Japan, and one of the few sites in Asia, where dugong are found. The mammal has disappeared from Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam, among other places, according to a report financed by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
Coastal development by human populations, rising pollution, ship traffic and fishing nets are some of the major threats the dugong faces, says the report by the UNEP, which launched a global alert about the plight of dugong in February at the global meeting of environment ministers at Cartagena, Colombia.
Helen Marsh, lead author of the report, says dugong populations appear to be diminishing in other areas, with the possible exception of the waters of northern Australia, the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. The situation in east Africa is alarming and could be the next zone where the dugong become extinct unless urgent action is taken, she said.
At the global level, just 1,000 to 2,000 dugong are left. In Japan, although no official survey has been conducted, conservationists think the number is very small, about 50 animals.
And sightings are increasingly rare. A decade ago, there were at least 29 dugong spotted in Henoko. The World Wild Life Fund (WWF) reports only one dugong was seen there in 2000.
"Dugong are extremely shy and can be spotted only at evening or night, which makes it difficult for conservationists to conduct accurate surveys without substantial resources," Hiroko Sakuma, at WWF Japan, told Tierramérica.
The dugong feed on sea grass that grows on the sandy beds of the ocean. They plow into the thick sea grass beds turning the surrounding waters a deep red with sediment.
Dugong can grow up to 3.4 meters in length and weigh up to 360 kilograms. Females give birth about once every two to three years and the pups suckle for 18 months or more.
The UNEP report called on Japan to establish a sanctuary in the area of the most important dugong habitat as the most effective method to preserve the species.
Following heated lobbying by environmental groups, the Environment Ministry released a report last month that promises to earmark 150 million yen from the state budget to serve and protect the dugong off Okinawa.
A study, to be conducted from airplanes and boats, will verify the number of dugong and the distribution of algae consumed by the sea mammals.
Photographs compiled by conservation show badly damaged sea grass as a result of the pollution following coastal construction and land reclamation in the oceans off east Okinawa.
"The government is finally taking heed," says, Taro Hosokawa, of the Dugong Network based in Okinawa. "Our fight is finally showing results."
The conservation group wants the Japanese government to designate the Okinawa dugong as a national endangered species and is calling for the feeding grounds to be conserved as a natural habitat area.
This demand however runs counter to a plan by the Japanese and U.S. governments to build an air base in Henoko, which will replace the current base in Futennma, in central Okinawa. The project is crucial for the Japanese government battling growing public opposition to the presence of U.S. troops on the island.
Activists claim if the base is built, the habitat of the dugong will be directly under the flight route, which would produce pollution and noise that are potentially harmful to the species.
But WWF's Sakuma points out that with international pressure rising, the government will be forced to conduct an environmental assessment for the new airport, which will surely reveal the dramatic impacts on the natural habitat and the dugong.
* Suvendrini Kakuchi is an IPS correspondent.