With fewer than 200 dugongs (commonly known as sea cow) in its waters, India is strongly encouraging its neighbours in South Asia to sign the Dugong United Nations Environment Programme/Convention of Mirgatory Species (UNEP/CMS) MoU as early as possible.

The first South Asian Dugong Conservation workshop, which was held at Tuticorin as the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere (GoMB) has the largest population of dugongs in the country, has asked Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to sign the MoU at the earliest.

Nine objectives

Already 14 countries have signed the MoU designed to facilitate national and trans-boundary actions leading to conservation of dugongs and their habitats. It has nine objectives, including reducing mortality; protect, conserve and manage habitats; raise awareness; improve legal protection and enhance regional cooperation. “We have fewer than 200 dugongs, mostly in GoMB and Andaman and Nicobar waters. There are very few in Gulf of Kutch. Cooperation of neighbouring countries is necessary as the migratory range of the species is long,” says A.K. Srivastava, Inspector General of Forests (Wildlife), Ministry of Environment and Forests. “Pakistan has no recent evidence of dugong population. In Sri Lanka there is evidence but could be migratory,” he says.

High genetic biodiversity value

According to Convention of Migratory Species, the dugong is a sea-grass dependent marine mammal of tropical and subtropical coastal waters, with high genetic biodiversity value.

Currently classified as vulnerable to extinction under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the dugongs are vulnerable to human-related influences due to their life history and dependence on sea grasses that are restricted to coastal habitats under increased pressure from human activities.

The draft Task Force Report on dugongs prepared by the Department of Endangered Species Management, Wildlife Institute of India, attributes several reasons for the decline in population, some of which include sea grass habitat loss and degradation, gill netting, chemical pollutants, indigenous use and hunting.

In GoMB, there has been a 30 per cent increase in population density in the past 20 years, essentially fishermen whose fishing ground has remained the same.

“A particular type of net where 40 to 50 persons operate it for five to six hours sweeps the sea floor completely,” says J.K. Patterson Edward, director, Suganthi Devadason Marine Research Institute, Tuticorin. Another killer is the domestic sewage let into the marine biosphere without treatment.

In Andaman & Nicobar Islands, there has been a steady decline in dugong population due to poaching and habitat destruction. The poaching is more by foreign nationals than the local islanders, activists say.

“The co-ordination is to develop and deliver a practical and resource-efficient strategy to collaborate and implement regional management initiatives for conservation,” says Jagdish Kishwan, ADGP (Wildlife) and Director, Wildlife Preservation, MoEF.