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Okinawa, the dugong's last hope

The waters off Okinawa, Japan, are the northern most home of the dugong. PANKAJ SEKHSARIA details how a plan of the American military poses the biggest threat to its survival.

The dugongs often form a close family unit.

THE problems facing wildlife conservation appear to be the same everywhere, everytime. Small populations of endangered wildlife; a small group of concerned citizens fighting an uphill, lonely battle and an unconcerned political system that refuses to look beyond short term commercial benefits or military and security interests.

This one is the same, and yet there are surprises. Not because it has succeeded, but because of its context. It is about a few dugongs pitched against the combined might of Japanese economic and political interests and the military might of the United States. The setting is not one of the so called developing countries from Africa, Asia or Latin America, but the very heart of one of the world's richest countries — Japan itself.

It is in Okinawa, located just east of the main Asian continent and forming the southern most island group of Japan. Called the Ryuku Islands in ancient times, this archipelago of 160-odd islands is unique. It is the only part of Japan that lies in the subtropical zone where mean annual temperatures hover around a comfortable 22C. The maritime environment is greatly influenced by the warm Kuroshio current and the northern part of the island called Yambaru is particularly rich in bio-diversity and endemic fauna like the Pryer's Woodpecker and the Okinawa Rail. The oceans are rich with sea grass beds, coral reefs and a variety of marine life. Some even call these islands the "Galapagos of the Orient".

And it is in these oceans that live a very small and important population of the slow moving marine mammal, the dugong (Dugong dugon).

Dugongs are found in the tropical and subtropical waters of the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific, with an estimated global population of 100,000.

Nearly 80 per cent of these are found around Australia, the rest being scattered in various parts. This is where Okinawa is crucial. The waters off Okinawa are the northern most home of the dugong; this population is considered the most isolated in the world and is so threatened that it has been classified as being near extinct. Little is known about this population, but it is estimated that its number does not exceed 50. It is as endangered an animal population as can be and yet the authorities refuse to recognise the issue.

Till very recently it was not even known if dugongs did live around Okinawa.

Every time there was a report of a dugong killed by a fishing net or stranded on the shore it was thought that the animal would have lost its way from its habitat in the Philippines, drifted towards Okinawa and met its unfortunate end.

It was only in the late 1970s that the Dugong Network Okinawa (DNO) initiated surveys to study the presence of the dugongs and the status of the grass beds on which they feed. The surveys have been intensified in more recent years with the use of helicopters. In 1998, dugongs were spotted on 53 different occasions and in April 1999, the largest number of six animals were seen in a short span of six minutes during one such survey.

In 1998 there were also a couple of cases of newborn dugongs being found entangled and dead in fishing nets, unfortunate, but proof nevertheless, that they do breed in the waters off Okinawa.

Higashionna Takuma.

Death by being caught in fishing nets here is a very serious problem, with six such cases being reported in the decade of the 1990s alone. There are other threats too. A study conducted in 1998 revealed that the ocean beds were contaminated by organic matter and sulphuric compounds, likely to damage the seagrass beds, the main source of dugong food. Red soil erosion and run off into the sea from the islands is another problem, as is large-scale American military activity. These include large scale landing practice using amphibious vehicles, oil and sound pollution and the exploding of unexploded and submerged shells, remnants of World War II.

The biggest threat however comes, as discussed earlier, from a system that is blind to the needs of these endangered dugongs. It is important to note in this context that there is massive American military presence in Okinawa.

The Okinawa prefecture was in fact under direct U.S. military administration from 1945 to 1972, when it was handed over to the Japanese.

"Despite significant changes in the international politico-economic environment in the Asia-Pacific region since the 1970s", explains Dr. Hiroki Kakazu of the Department of Sustainable Development, Nihon University, "Okinawa's geo-military position as the `Keystone of the Pacific' has remained almost unchanged." Even today, nearly 20 per cent of the land mass of Okinawa is under direct occupation of the American military and though Okinawa accounts for only 0.6 per cent of Japan's total landmass, 75 per cent of all American military base facilities in this country are concentrated here.

It is one such plan of the American military that poses the biggest threat for the survival of the dugongs of Okinawa: the proposed relocation of the existing U.S. Futenma Air Station in Okinawa to the coastal area of Henoko.

This area on the eastern coast of Okinawa is where the largest sea grass beds are found and it is the most favoured habitat of a number of species of marine life, including the dugong. The 1998 "Guideline for Nature Conservation" of the Okinawa Prefectural Government (OPJ) has in fact listed the coastal waters off Henoko as Rank I, an "area where strict nature conservation is needed". Nothing of all this has however prevented the Japanese and U.S. governments from suggesting the creation of a U.S. Marine Corps sea based air base off Henoko. It is to be a massive structure, 1,500m in length, 600 m wide, with the capacity to accommodate 2,500 troops and 60 helicopters. When built it will cover an area of 90 hectares of water (more recent reports say that it will be much larger: 2,600m by 730 m and cover an area of 200 ha), will deter photosynthesis, ecologically isolate the waters from the Pacific Ocean, block the diurnal migration of dugongs between daytime refuges outside the reef area and night time inshore feeding areas, increase manifold the possibilities of accidents, oil leaks, water and sound pollution, and cause the destruction of the marine system and the most preferred home of the dugong.

The official response to the questions regarding the environment is typical. In one of the government plans it is stated "that the seagrass beds found in the proposed areas are common with other parts of the Okinawa waters, and the grasses growing there would be transplanted to suitable places as much as possible". In official discussions and replies in the House of Representatives, the government has used the excuse of "lack of research and surveys on the distribution of dugongs in seas around Japan" to go ahead with the proposed project.

Incidentally, the Okinawans themselves are clearly opposed to the base off Henoko. They had overwhelmingly expressed their desire for a reduction in air bases here in a referendum in 1996. Another non-binding plebiscite, specifically on the Henoko base was held in December 1997. And, 54 per cent of the voters voted against it. Inspite of this clear opposition, the Okinawan Prefectural Government passed a resolution in October 1999 in favour of the project. The Japanese Government has reportedly placed immense pressure on Okinawa, promising large-scale economic stimulus if they go ahead with the project and by the threat of sanctions if they don't.

It is also important that the opposition of the Okinawan people is not merely on political grounds, of wanting to remove the huge foreign and military presence from their land. It is also very environmental in nature.

In 1998 the assembly of Nago city of Okinawa passed a resolution stating, "... it is our responsibility to preserve the precious sea where dugongs and sea turtles are born and grow, which heals our soul and provides us with sustenance", and therefore the region should be protected for "future generations". The dugong has been an integral part of Okinawan culture. It was designated here as tennen -kinnenbutsu (natural monument) under the "Historic Natural Monument Protection Law" before World War II and this has continued under various laws since. The local people here also believe that dugongs were their ancestors. As Higashionna Takuma, Secretary of the Save the Dugong Foundation and a resident of Setake, near Henoko village says, "Our guiding principle is `to live in harmony with the dugong'. Not only is the dugong vital, but also the environment inhabited by the dugong. In other words, ensuring an environment in which dugong can survive is also vital for us as human beings ... We can establish a mode of living without the (military) bases. If the natural environs are destroyed, and the dugong lost from this region, what on earth will be left?".

Easy prey

DUGONGS belong to the mammalian order Sirenia and are popularly known as sea-cows. They have been recorded in lengths ranging from roughly one to three metres and in weights reaching an estimated 400 kg. The mouth of the animal is small and the upper lip projects considerably beyond the lower lip and is in the form of an extensive horseshoe shaped fleshy pad overhanging the mouth.

They do not stray far from coastal waters and surface to breathe at intervals ranging from 30 seconds to 81/2 minutes. Not infrequently, dugongs are seen in family groups consisting of a single young and parents. These habits also render them easy prey for humans, and often the entire family may be caught if any of the members are netted or harpooned. The animal is said to live to an age of 20 years.

The animal is also found in Indian waters, in the Gulf of Kutch, on the coast of Malabar, around the Andaman islands and in the Gulf of Mannar.

Interchangeably called kadalpudru, kadalpaani and avilliah in the Tamil language, they were once commonly found in the Gulf of Mannar. They have however become very rare here and it is only scarely that a dugong is caught in fishing nets here.

Encyclopedia of Indian Natural History, edited by R.E. Hawkins, Bombay Natural History Society

The Book of Indian Mammals, S.H. Prater, Bombay Natural History Society.

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