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What are dugongs? Why nature’s ‘sea cows’ need protecting from extinction

The serene lifestyle of Asia's dugong's is being threatened by seagrass pollution and fishing
The serene lifestyle of Asia's dugong's is being threatened by seagrass pollution and fishing   -   Copyright  Getty via Canva
By Shannon McDonagh

You may have never heard of them, but one of the sea’s most peaceful creatures is being spotlighted by new conservation awareness efforts.

Delightfully nicknamed “sea cows”, dugongs are herbivorous marine mammals most often found across Pacific-Asian waters. Described by the WWF as “plump” in appearance, they get around using their striking dolphin-like tails, living off seagrass grown from shallow ocean beds.

People often get them confused with their cousin - the similarly striking manatee. Unlike their close relation, Dugongs inhabit eastern ocean waters rather than freshwater lakes, and are slightly smaller in size.

However, their tranquil, undisturbed existence hasn’t stopped them from falling victim to threat of extinction. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species classifies them as “vulnerable”. This is said to be species-variable as studies show some populations of the mammal may have escalated to “critically endangered”.

It’s hard to know how vulnerable dugongs could be

We understand that manatees are threatened by warming water temperatures, which make it easier to assess their status as vulnerable animals.

Picturing the future for their cousins is a little foggier.

Dugongs actually help the climate through the protection of their food source, seagrass meadows, as they are known to be a great means of “blue carbon” storage.

The problem lies in fishing and human activity, which puts those meadows at risk and have caused numbers of dugongs to plummet since the 1970s.

To what extent is unclear - their shyness and preference for muddy waters make them very difficult to spot.

What is being done to protect them?

Given the animal’s large residency in the area, it is no surprise that Qatar is leading the way in making sure a firm effort is put towards keeping them safe.

An upcoming summer exhibition titled ‘Seagrass Tales, Dugongs Trails’ will be presented at Qatar’s National Museum in order to educate people about the animal’s ancestry, potential threats, and benefits to the environment. The museum has subsequently declared the animal its mascot.

Dugong’s relationship with the country is a special one - they were first known to populate the Arabian Gulf over 7,500 years ago. It’s uncommon for the creatures to travel in large groups, but numbers are so strong that the largest sighting of over 800 of them was found in Qatar last year.

The country’s environmental ministry have spearheaded several initiatives to raise awareness of the role the animal plays in the nation’s sea life, with funding for research that will inform conservationists on how to better protect them.

“Dugongs play an important role in marine ecosystems - they contribute to maintaining healthy seagrass meadows that help ensure vegetative balance for a healthy ecosystem,” says Ismail Al-Shaikh, a Technical Research Supervisor at the helm of this research.

“With the species currently classified as vulnerable, we hope that our research will continue to support the population growth of these serene animals, so that they can continue to flourish in Qatar and beyond”.

Qatar National Tourism Council
Dugong's uncharacteristically gather in large groups along the Arabian GulfQatar National Tourism Council

Qatar isn’t the only country recognising the importance of dugongs

The Philippines has also introduced legislation to protect dugongs under conservation laws that inflict harsh penalties on fishermen who harm them. It’s the first marine protection in the country of this kind.

The country’s national situation got so bad that dugongs could only survive in specially protected areas where they were protected from fishing boat propellers and ocean waste.

Technology that allows researchers to map their sightings from directly within the ocean was also implemented back in 2016.