‘Critically endangered’ listing for East African dugong population is needed (commentary)

By Evan Trotzuk

  • Though found in relative abundance in parts of northern Australia, the only known viable dugong population in East Africa calls the waters around the Bazaruto Archipelago National Park in Mozambique home.
  • A new peer-reviewed paper proposes the East African dugong population be listed as ‘critically endangered’ on the IUCN Red List to protect the last few hundred animals that are left.
  • While Bazaruto’s management has reduced illegal activities in the park that endanger them, these efforts may not be enough to save East Africa’s dugongs without the support of a new ‘critically endangered’ listing, a new op-ed argues.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Once common in East Africa, there is now only one known viable dugong population found in this entire region. With just a few hundred left in the waters around the Bazaruto Archipelago National Park in Mozambique, this makes up approximately 90% of the remaining East African dugong population and unless protected, the extinction of these elusive marine mammals in East Africa could be inevitable.

Found in relative abundance in parts of northern Australia, dugongs are currently listed globally as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. But over the past few decades their numbers in East Africa have plummeted due to indiscriminate fishing and development.

By proposing that the East African dugong population is listed as ‘critically endangered,’ a significant incentive will be established to support the long-term protection of these marine mammals.

Myself and others on the Bazaruto research team recently published a peer-reviewed paper“Focused and inclusive actions could ensure the persistence of East Africa’s last known viable dugong subpopulation,” which proposes the East African dugong population be listed as ‘critically endangered’ on the IUCN Red List, a globally recognized measure of extinction vulnerability. The IUCN Red List uses precise criteria to evaluate the level of vulnerability of the world’s flora and fauna species so that levels of protection can be measured to prevent their extinction.

Dugong at Bazaruto Archipelago National Park, Mozambique. Image courtesy of Evan Trotzuk.
Dugong at Bazaruto Archipelago National Park, Mozambique. Image courtesy of Evan Trotzuk/African Parks.

Threats to dugongs and people

Traditionally, dugongs have been anthropomorphized in many parts of the world. Europeans cited them as the inspiration for mermaids. In Africa, dugongs are known as nguva, which is Swahili for ‘mermaid’ or simply binadamu meaning ‘person.’ In Tanzania, an origin story for dugongs describes a couple who were transformed into the first dugongs as punishment. Eating dugong meat is also believed by some to imbue long life, while others claim the bones ward off evil spirits.

More importantly, dugongs, also known as ‘sea cows’ and whose closest relatives are manatees, play a vital ecological role in supporting marine biodiversity. Occurring mostly in the tropical coastal waters of the Indian and western Pacific Oceans, these solitary mammals rely on seagrass meadows for their survival. Through grazing, dugongs encourage the health and resilience of these important underwater habitats, which as a result supports a myriad of other fish, turtle, mollusk and crustacean species. This in turn provides critical support to fisheries enterprises, providing economic opportunities and food security to thousands of coastal communities.

Along the east coast of Africa, the ongoing threat from a massive increase in the use of gill nets, in which dugongs and other marine megafauna are easily entangled and drowned, is putting significant pressure on the survival of the last remaining dugongs. Development and commercial activities along the coast are impacting sensitive marine habitats, and it’s estimated that seagrass coverage has declined by approximately 20% over the past century in the tropical Indo-Pacific.

A dugong swimming with a calf off the coast of Australia. Image © naturepl.com / Doug Perrine / WWF.
Dugongs are more common off the coast of Australia, here one swims with a calf. Image courtesy of Doug Perrine/WWF.

The Role of Communities in Protecting Dugongs

Made up of five islands and spanning 1,430 kmof pristine seascape, Bazaruto Archipelago National Park encompasses terrestrial and marine habitats of exceptional ecological value. Through the co-management agreement between African Parks and Mozambique’s National Administration of Conservation Areas (ANAC), the long-term conservation of Mozambique’s unique marine biodiversity in this protected area is made possible. But the work to ensure the last remaining viable dugong subpopulation on the East African coast is not yet complete, and further action needs to take place.

By partnering with local communities, conservation organizations are better placed to understand the needs of locals while also benefitting local economies to alleviate the pressure from previously unsustainable fisheries on marine biodiversity, which is essential to protecting dugongs.

Through collaboration and engagement with island communities to enhance livelihoods through sustainable enterprise development, education and law enforcement, Bazaruto’s park management is creating a holistic approach to help restore and protect one of the most critical marine sanctuaries in the Indian Ocean.

Fishing is also being monitored, so that some areas are closed to fishing during certain times of the year, while only island communities can fish within designated areas in the park boundaries. As a result, illegal fishing has been radically reduced over recent years through improved boundary control and positive community engagement to gain respect for marine park boundaries.

Tourism initiatives are in development to create jobs and local revenue streams, while at the same time being managed so that the park’s ecological integrity is not compromised.

See related: Death of last river dolphin in Laos rings alarm bells for Mekong population

A dugong (Dugong dugong) feeding on seagrass in Egypt. Image by Julien Willem via Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)
A dugong feeding on seagrass in Egypt. Image by Julien Willem via Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Preventing Extinction of East Africa’s Dugongs

With the success of this proposal to reassess and amend the East African dugong population on the IUCN Red Data List from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘critically endangered,’ far more robust efforts can be taken to ensure the survival of this last remaining population, such as ANAC’s public and private efforts to create an Environmental Protection Area to the north of the existing park where important dugong hotspots are found.

Through the successful management of Bazaruto Archipelago National Park, it’s clear that the conservation of key megafauna species, such as dugongs, is dependent on inclusive community development, strategic research and monitoring and fair law enforcement to safeguard habitats. This is only made possible when partnerships between governments, communities and management organizations are developed and maintained through trust, engagement and accountability.

Bazaruto’s management, which has demonstrably reduced illegal activity in the park, while improving the livelihoods for local communities, serves as a valuable model for the broader management of seascape’s such as it, ensuring that people and dugongs can thrive well into the future.

But without the support of a new ‘critically endangered’ listing, which should be prioritized by the IUCN, these efforts may not be enough to save East Africa’s dugongs.

Evan Trotzuk is a Research and Monitoring Coordinator at African Parks, which administers Bazaruto Archipelago National Park.


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